A fundamental paradox in the heart of the contemporary condition are the extreme scenarios of mediated experiences, in which devices, screens, and online connection are extended to every part of life. On one hand we have bio-exploratory and tech-vigilant apparatuses surpassing any reasonable boundaries; and on the other, we have never had so many available resources to promote autonomous dynamics and organisations — be it in local or global contexts.
With this context in mind, this conversation carried out on Google Docs oscillates between two specific projects: Mattering of a Productive Mythology , by artist Aslı Uludağ, which investigates the development of geothermal energy in the Büyük Menderes Graben rift basin in Turkey and its effects on the olive and fig trees that the region is known for through the work of organised local resistance and with different outcomes; and data_labe, a data and narrative laboratory in favela da Maré, Rio de Janeiro, co-founded by Gilberto Vieira, which develops articles, consultancies, analytical reports, workshops and events moved by the strengths and complexities of the territory and their residents, especially Cocôzap — a platform to collect data on public sanitation in Maré. The dialogue was structured by a self-introduction between interlocutors, followed by three provocations that articulate topics pertinent to both contexts.
GD: To begin with, maybe we could talk about the visions, intentions and drives behind these projects. How did these initiatives emerge?
AU: Aydin is located in the Büyük Menderes Graben, a region known for its olive and figs. This geography is geologically characterised by active fault lines which, amongst other things, make it an earthquake zone and a geothermal energy field. Deep subsurface fluids, sources of energy and toxicity, flow upwards through the cracks in the ground and rest closer to the surface in the graben. Thus, one might argue that the deep subsurface lies closer to the surface in the Büyük Menderes Graben.
In the 60s, the region was declared Turkey’s primary geothermal field and the development of geothermal energy plants (GEP) increased rapidly after 2008 with a law that privatised geothermal energy. Today, there are 43 GEPs in the graben (and counting). Among the repercussions are environmental toxicity which leads to the death of olive and fig trees, steaming streams and irrigation wells, mass fish deaths, a stench of rotten eggs and micro earthquakes.
The local resistance has been documenting these environmental changes over the past 6 years, posting them on Facebook groups. However, this slow violence is made invisible because of the linear timeline of Facebook’s interface. This is a form of violence that spreads across time and space through a multitude of uneventful events — momentary leaks, discharges and ruptures which, when documented, only seem to be water or steam gushing out of pipes. Moreover, their environmental effects become visible much later and not only at the site of the event but also elsewhere downwind, downstream, near or far.
There needed to be a form of documentation that could better capture these nonlinear effects. The event-dial came from this need, drawing the past, present and future closer together and making visible the slow yet steady operations of this environmental violence. I’m developing the event-dial into a digital archive where all these materials will be collected with support from the local resistance. The aim is not only to show the distribution of these events and their repercussions in time, but also to dramatise the seemingly uneventful event of geothermal steam.
GV: data_labe is based in Conjunto de Favelas da Maré, a neighbourhood with a conglomerate of 16 small neighbourhoods in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. With about 140,000 residents, it is considered one of the largest favela complexes in Brazil. Facing prejudices and social stigmas is one of the common challenges in the daily lives of Maré residents, as well as other systematic occurrences that compound already existing social inequalities. When it comes to government policies, low investments and incomplete actions are recurrent in the face of the demands and needs of popular communities. Recently, the police carried out an operation in which 29 people were summarily executed. It was one of the biggest massacres in the country’s history. The city was divided between those who considered the massacre inhumane and those who thought the police acted intelligently.
It is within these disputing narratives that data_labe was born in 2016 as an association of young residents of the periphery to produce alternatives to hegemonic media. One element is central to this dispute: the data. Organised collectives have been questioning the production, processing, visualisation and transparency of data in contexts dominated by big tech. It is common for many people in the favelas to understand that Facebook is synonymous with the entire Internet. This happens in view of the free access plans that the platform offers to poor people in exchange for data of all kinds.
We work for the possibility of telling powerful stories. For this, it seems essential to articulate our experiences and desires with new technological possibilities and scientific research emerging in the field.
We work for the possibility of telling powerful stories. For this, it seems essential to articulate our experiences and desires with new technological possibilities and scientific research emerging in the field. It is necessary to act so that technologies stop being seen just as miracles that arose from the Global North, and so that more women, Black, LGBTQIA+ people, and favelas dwellers can lead the production of software, hardware and methods. That is why it is so important to dispute the data. They will be our basis for complex narratives, which talk about people and their territories before talking about systems as a whole. We fight for access to public data, open spreadsheets, inventing possible intersections and producing our own databases. So that politics takes place between, and not under, our bodies.
GD: Now that we have all been introduced to each other and our works, I propose the following prompts:
Prompt 1: Matters of Data
For me, it’s clear that imaginary production through collectively gathering and organising information to serve alternative, counter-narratives is central to both projects. In a broader, more philosophical sense, these projects work in the intersections of politics, information and aesthetics to highlight how data can actually transliterate facts from events into reliable and useful information.
In your experience, what language games are at play when data is used and how can we contribute to people’s access and ability to read, interpret, use and question it? And considering local and global interconnections, to what extent should projects focus on the afflicted people or on pushing agendas and building external awareness for these matters?
What language games are at play when data is used and how can we contribute to people's access and ability to read, interpret, use and question it?
GV: Currently, the empowerment of young people from the working classes necessarily involves accessing, disseminating and producing information. This is important to understand the paths that forged the imaginaries built in recent decades about cities and the people who live in them. The technologies and their uses applied to the guiding projects of the megacities of the Global South, as well as the narratives constructed by the traditional media and, in the opposite direction, the projects and social practices elaborated in the peripheries point to a fierce dispute in the field of urban and social studies.
This dispute is centred on the extraction, storage, processing and analysis of data and its appropriation by subjects forged in the peripheries. Big data forms the epistemological basis of our historical moment. We live under a new knowledge production regime in which data is processed through advanced statistics, and forecasting models inform decisions, actions and relationships. This is, as author Paola Ricaurte says, the datafication of life.
This epistemology of which Ricaurte speaks is based on three assumptions: “(1) data reflects reality, (2) data analysis generates the most valuable and accurate knowledge, and (3) data processing results can be used to make better decisions about the world”. However, all these premises must be challenged and analysed in a broader framework that considers how this form of knowledge production increases the concentration of capital, surveillance and colonisation.
In the favelas and peripheries of the world, historically marginalised and vulnerable groups produce less data, as they are not represented in the formal economy, have unequal access, and have less ability to engage online. This ends up generating a series of distortions in urban public policies, increasingly focused on data analysis that certainly have not included these social groups and their demands. In this sense, the data ends up reproducing the patterns of discrimination and exclusion present in the digital world, resulting in potentially discriminatory public policies.
What we are doing at data_labe is opening up epistemic and practical paths in a movement that Stefania Milan calls “datafication in data activism”. How do we, from the peripheral spaces of southern megacities, engage with practices for grassroots social change, which are related to data and yet resist the processes of datafication that deepen social inequalities? This is a question that is still in the process of being answered, but we are looking for it in practical terms.
In everyday life, we have seen that the call for popular participation through the production of data generates new debates, new demands. This new knowledge, little by little, contradicts the official narratives that are so linked to a paradigm of need associated with social movements and residents of the suburbs. The solutions are not yet seen with the naked eye. Setbacks affecting people’s material lives, such as high levels of unemployment and food insecurity, block progress. But the resistance is still alive.
How do we, from the peripheral spaces of southern megacities, engage with practices for grassroots social change, which are related to data and yet resist the processes of datafication that deepen social inequalities?
AU: The Büyük Menderes Graben is a very large region that stretches across the province of Aydin and crosses into Denizli, the neighbouring province to the east. The events through which the GEPs act on the environment are not always visible, as they are temporally spread out and their effects can only be sensed when certain conditions are met. Considering the extent of the Büyük Menderes Graben and the temporally staggered development of the GEPs, it is crucial that their ranging environmental effects are communicated between communities from different sites. This not only activates the locals in regions where geothermal development has just begun, but also forms solidarity between different localities, across villages, towns and provinces.
The organised resistance against geothermal energy development began in Germencik, one of the initial sites of the development, about six years ago. The locals established the Germencik Environment and Nature Organization and started a Facebook page where they began sharing video and images that document the differences they witness in their environment. Then, about three years ago, the residents of Kızılcaköy, a small settlement not too far from Germencik, received news that a GEP was planned to be built in their village. Knowing the situation in Germencik, they too established an organisation and began sharing video and images on their existing Facebook page. Individuals in Pamukören — where five GEPs are currently located — followed these examples and started their own Facebook page in 2019. These groups also lead legal battles against the geothermal energy companies that are active in their specific localities.
GD: Thank you for that background. Now I’d like to move on to our second prompt.
Prompt 2: Technologies and Social Media
Aslı’s Mattering of a Productive Mythology creates its own non-linear organisation based on and dedicated to the unfolding of monitoring done originally through a Facebook group (and which has been done there for years), proposing an alternative form for the social media timeline. On the other hand, data_labe has created Cocôzap, a WhatsApp group — very well known for its massive and multiple, even unbelievable, uses in every aspect of social life in Brazil. It maps local sanitary problems, demands and articulations around water, sewage and other infrastructure neglected by the city and other levels of government, through participatory methods and data collection. How do you see the use of current platforms in your works as possible structures for both producing new information and to push agendas by communicating, distributing and connecting this information to people’s everyday lives? And how do you see the use of communication infrastructures owned by massive corporations in favour of common causes in relation to the growing structural problems concerning power concentrations, excessive exposition, privacy issues and data monetisation, behaviour manipulation through algorithms, and psychological dependence?
GV: I believe that this dispute I have been arguing for takes into account two (certainly unequal) forces: on the one hand there are the big technology corporations that have increased the use of algorithms for the purposes of capital manipulation, imposing a new “surveillance capitalism” and generating all kinds of predictive effects on the conduct of individuals and populations. On the other hand, there is the experimentation of forms of resistance and reversal of asymmetries, whether previous or directly linked to the specificities of contemporary surveillance. I cling to what Fernanda Bruno calls technopolitics : a movement of dialogue between new forms of surveillance and control, and attempts at resistance and subversion. It is in the context of techno-political clashes that data_labe understands proprietary applications — Facebook (Whatsapp, Instagram), Google, Adobe, Amazon — as a toolbox for current socio-technical clashes.
I don’t see an immediate way out beyond dialoguing with these corporations in an attempt to better and more democratically distribute the resources concentrated in the intention of forming new subjects for the construction of possible futures. So, to imagine these futures you will have to imagine new worlds. The paths that have brought us here point to a technological determinism that flattens social relations and assumes that “technologies have an autonomous functional logic, which can be explained without referring to society”. It is not this deterministic future that I envision here.
For us, it is necessary to understand reality as multiple, from an ontological-political perspective that allows us “to visualise, operate or weave multiple realities with the help of technological devices”. Perhaps this is the deepest utopia we have glimpsed. However, it is paradoxical and urgent to recognise that we are positioned in a dispute that is still very unequal, where racialised women and men, residents of favelas and peripheries, indigenous peoples and LGBTQIA+ still face a multitude of obstacles to accessing spaces of power in the socio-technical negotiations of the present.
The posted images and videos do not only function as shared information between sites; the posts themselves become nodes to gather around, initiating communication across sites.
AU: Local resistance groups’ Facebook pages allow for this urgent exchange. The posted images and videos not only function as shared information between sites; the posts themselves become nodes to gather around, initiating communication across sites. I had not been to Aydin prior to my research so these Facebook pages were instrumental, more so than any scientific report, news report or article, in attuning to the claims of the local population and the changes they sensed in the texture of their environment. Subsequently, it was through their Facebook pages that I initiated contact with them.
This, of course, came with a price. There are many things to be said about algorithmic governance but in the case of my research, one of the main issues pertains to data ownership and access. Due to the slow effects of environmental violence, accessibility to the images and videos mentioned above at a later date is crucial for studies, legal cases and other actions that might take place in the future regarding the development of geothermal energy in the Büyük Menderes Graben.
However, there are many challenges to this that Facebook poses, with its ambition to fold itself smoothly and seamlessly into the experience of everyday life. The option to post photos captured directly through the Facebook app (without using the camera app on the phone) and the most recent Facebook Live feature, utilised regularly by the local resistance groups in the graben, are examples of this blending. Consequently, as the smartphone disappears into Facebook, the recorded event flows, without a trace, into the linear timeline of the Facebook interface. It is buried by future images, videos, and posts, made inaccessible by the glitches and Internet browser failures one faces when scrolling back to that date after a few years — a very short duration in terms of environmental violence.
Facebook is not a neutral platform, it is a political field always charged with the potential intervention of the state (or a geothermal energy company). Thus, another platform is necessary — not in the place of, but in addition to, Facebook. The aim of the digital archive I’m working on is precisely this, to collect and make accessible these videos and images for a future (study, legal case, forum) yet to come.
GD: To move on from the last prompt: in light of these challenges and visions concerning the work each of you are doing, what would you say are the most urgent specific demands you have right now to either structure, expand or further develop them?
Prompt 3: Specific Demands
GV: Our biggest challenge is sustainability. We are a non-profit association, composed of young technical activists, all of popular origin, who need to live in comfort and dignity. The current Brazilian government has criminalised the work of civil society organisations and its dependence on international funding does not guarantee the sustainability of the operation of organisations and collectives.
More tags and categories bring their own questions: to whom is this viewpoint according to, to what or which particular truth?
AU: This conversation comes at an interesting time for me because I’m currently in the process of developing the archive, and though there is a general aim that I started out with, I can’t speak to what the archive does or doesn’t do yet, which is one of its main challenges. How do you organise something without knowing what it might be used for or what it might generate? Currently I’m trying to develop various organisational tools, including the event-dial mentioned above, to enable different ways of searching and navigating in the archive. This, of course, is a challenge as the ease of navigation — improvised or self-directed — is always at risk when the tools of navigation multiply. Additionally, more tags and categories bring their own questions: to whom is this viewpoint according to, to what or which particular truth? What do these categories guide towards and away from?
I’m searching for a point where both directed walking and wandering are possible in the archive so I’m afraid I have more questions than answers until I’m closer to finding out. However, it’s important to point out that while developing these tools I continuously remind myself that my main concern are the videos and the images: to make them accessible and their various arrangements possible. Their sheer amount forces forms of quantification, abstraction and simplification within the archive for purposes of organisation so it’s important to regularly return to the images themselves. What is extracted from them needs to remain fluid. It’s easy to forget this when looking at a spreadsheet all day.
The archive will be handed over to the local resistance groups in the graben when it’s up and running which brings to fore other questions. How will it be integrated into their structure, how will it change their structure, will the archive continue to grow and can it be maintained? I think here Gilberto’s concerns and mine overlap.
Short for WhatsApp (how the app is commonly referred to in Brazil), “Zap”, with the Portuguese word for poop.
Law on Geothermal Resources and Natural Mineral Waters, Law No: 5686 Official Gazette, 13 June 2007 No.: 26551, enacted: 3 June 2007.
NIXON, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA/London, England: Harvard University Press, 2011.
The term “favela/favelas” refers to shanty towns located in Brazil; areas which have and continue to experience governmental neglect. The first favela, Providência, was recorded to have appeared in the late 19th century, built by soldiers from the Canudos War who had nowhere else to live.
On 6 May 2021, 27 residents of Jacarezinho, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, were killed by police. This was known as the deadliest police raid in the state’s history: https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2021/08/14/rio-de-janeiro-asks-why-its-cops-kill-so-many-black-people
The terms “Global North” and “Global South” are not exclusively geographic; rather the terms group nations according to socio-economic and political characteristics. Singapore, for instance, despite being in the Southern Hemisphere, is a part of the Global North. The “Global North” is, broadly, interchangeable with “developed” countries, while the “Global South” refers to “developing” nations.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual and others
Ricaurte, Paola. “Data Epistemologies, The Coloniality of Power, and Resistance”. Television & New Media. 2019. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1527476419831640
Milan, Stefania; Treré, Emiliano. Big Data from the South(s): Beyond Data Universalism. Television & New Media. Vol. 20(4), 2019.
Bruno, Fernanda; Cardaso, Bruno; Kanashiro, Marta; Guilhom, Luciana; Melgaço, Lucas (orgs). Tecnopolítica da vigilância: perspectivas da margem. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2018.
Feenberg, Andrew. Racionalização Subversiva: Tecnologia, Poder e Democracia. In. A Teoria Crítica da Tecnologia de Feenberg.