The Research Center for Proxy Politics aims to explore and reflect upon the nature of medial networks and their actors, that is, machines and things as well as humans. The proxy, a decoy or surrogate, is today often used to designate a computer server acting as an intermediary for requests from clients. Originating in the Latin procurator, an agent representing others in a court of law, proxies are now emblematic of a post-representational political age, one increasingly populated by bot militias, puppet states, ghostwriters, and communication relays. During the period of the project (September 2014 to August 2017) the center will host a series of workshops at the Universität der Künste, Berlin, revolving around a wide range of relevant topics including the politics of digital networks, the political economy of crypto-currencies, the genealogy of networked thought, the mediality of physical landscapes and strategies of opacity. The center will also conduct material, experimental, investigations into the conception and construction of alternative networks, or alternets.
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(TEXT) 08/10 2016

(Subject) Hood Prank

Mikk Madisson

“What is up guys, DennisCeeTv here! I’m here with the one and only OckTv and today we are going around east New York asking people if they wanna buy a gun. But not a real gun – water guns. See if we get killed!” says 25-year-old Dennis Chuyeskov, aka Dennis Cee, in front of a New York police department building.

To Dennis Cee’s right, standing beside him, is Etayyim “Et” Etayyim and on the left his brother, Mohammed “Moe” Etayyim, intensely pointing his finger at the camera. Dennis Cee approaches five young black men sitting and standing in the shade around a green table and bench next to a running track. One of them is bouncing a basketball. Two water guns (one neon yellow, the other neon orange) bulge out of the back pockets of Dennis’s black Bermudas.

“Uhm, excuse me, guys, uh yo, do you wanna buy a gun real quick?”

“What?” replies the black youth sitting in the middle while his friend beside him steadily continues to dribble his basketball.

“A strap yo…” says Dennis, reaching back to fetch the yellow water gun, his fingers trembling.

“What?” repeats the one in the middle as he stands up.

“A strap”, “A WATER GUN! Let me show you!!!”

At this point Dennis is punched in the face, his head swerving towards the camera eyes pinched shut; the skin of his face, forced to eject by the inertia of the fist hitting his left cheek, reaches a threshold of a few centimeters and slaps back against his skull. The same moment repeats in slow-mo.

“A WATER GUN, IT’S A WATER GUN!” screams Dennis desperately, retreating as he does.

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“Hood Pranks” is a candid-camera based YouTube sensation in the US, during which young white men enter a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood to provoke people into violent behavior. This behavior is then captured on camera and published on YouTube. To initiate contact, they misleadingly ask if people want to buy a “gun” when it is actually a water gun or a “strap” that is actually a yoga strap. This often ends with the provokers getting beaten up, or even held at gunpoint by the provoked, prompting the provokers to disclose that it had only been a prank. Nevertheless, “Hood Pranks” has become a form of viral content with videos having a million views or more. Enabling targeted ads on the channel monetizes this content. The millions of views may also win the publishers of the videos YouTube sponsorships.

“Hood Pranks” can be seen as an example of the YouTube generation (Generation Y) profiting from colonialism, shackle slavery, the racialization of blacks and the accumulation of wealth by applying cybernetic thinking. It’s as if they have inherited a world where they can reap profit from individuals with a false sense of their interiority fabricated by a planted subjecthood. They embody an extraction of historical value mimicking the predictive algorithms of advanced capitalism in a post-colonial world where colonization means the colonizing of the intangible or the inner. Through the altercations becoming viral content, the provoker as well as the provoked, participate in the discourse of the super-panopticon, where identities come into existence and are sustained without the awareness (outside the immediacy of consciousness) of the individuals themselves.[1]

The provokers abuse symbolic behavior and language to initiate a process of interpellation: the language and behavior of the provokers order the provoked to assume their presupposed roles as racialized criminal subjects of a low-income neighborhood. Once you submit to provocation, you are no longer in control. Also, provocation itself requires knowledge about the person provoked.

Cybernetics is described as the steering or controlling of natural forces using information and communication through feedback. Its aim is explicit control over nature by creating homeostasis, or an equilibrium, i.e that a property of a system would remain close to a constant. It is about self-regulation, at which computers excel and humans don’t. Cyberneticising a subject is an extension of modern western rational thought. A cybernetic organism is anything natural that has been mastered by culture. Pets are a good example, who, as Rosi Braidotti explains, qualify as cyborgs, since they are compounds of a nature-culture continuum.[2]

 

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In eastern philosophies, language has been used to verbally plant negative feedback loops into subjects as a way of governing the outputs of their inner-self. This exemplifies how subjects might be configured via language. Verbally executing a negative feedback loop (such as a mantra) on a subject is similar to programming software or code and installing it on a computer. That is, a piece of software or code once executed on a computer changes the function of the machine. The altered internal (intangible) properties would change the material properties of the object. The input utilized by “Hood Pranks” in order to receive the desired output is, of course, “gun”.

In her book Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun eloquently points out how the monetizing of the internal or the intangible historically coincides with the patenting of software and code, which until the early nineties was legally considered a mathematical truth or a law of nature[3]. While referring to Margaret Jane Radin she asserts that programmability and the information age compromised the notion of intellectual property, which was based on a series of Enlightenment ideas: of autonomous subjects and heteronomous objects; of intellect being internal — i.e. that information could not be removed from the self — and property, external.[4] The information age had broken down the distinction between the tangible and intangible (the controversies surrounding the patentability of DNA are a manifestation of this process). The initial dreams of programmability, which stemmed from modern biology and genetics (and much more sinisterly from the field of eugenics), were quickly materializing. In her analysis, informatics and genetics are two complementary strands of a double helix, “breedability became the proof of programmability”,[5] as DNA is a piece of code that drives protein expression. Interestingly, these two strands – informatics and genetics – and their dreams are currently entangling in the Synthetic Biology research (with genome editing tools such as CRISPR*) that succeeded in engineering biological systems, by programming (instructing) cells.[6]

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When I was in middle school we used to play an online role-playing game called Runescape. An important part of the game was mining for precious metal ores, which were then used for creating weapons and armor. Such items could also be traded with other players, this usually happened at a place called Varrock Square. But mining was time-consuming, as each hit with the mattock was equal to a click with the mouse. Therefore, some players developed software called Auto-Miners that would have the character of the player mine automatically by virtually simulating mouse clicks. Auto-Miners were freely shared at Varrock Square –players would shout out web links to pages where they could be downloaded. This situation was exploited by scammers: they created low-level characters that promoted web links to fake Auto-Miners which, in fact, were key loggers. Once the Auto-Miner was downloaded and installed, the key logger would be covertly installed as well. The player would sometimes get an error notification saying that the Auto-Miner couldn’t be installed. By using the keylogger, the scammer would receive a player’s (activity) log via email with the user account passwords for the game. Using these passwords, the scammer would log into the scammed user account and empty the character’s inventory of valuable items by dropping them somewhere in the game and picking them up with his own character. This happened at a time when, at least in Estonia, logging into someone else’s private online account was yet to be considered identity theft.

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A log is an external manifestation of the history of a subject’s internal states. It contains personal data, which a scammer can profit from. Similarly, databases (e.g. Google, YouTube) commercially make use of the online traces their users leave behind. Personal data enables an algorithm to profile a person for targeted advertising. “Hood Pranksters” follow the same logic of discourse when trying to sell a “gun” to the black people in the videos.

The “gun” offered for sale is like the Auto-Miner marketed on Varrock Square. They are both utilized to hijack the target’s character in a way that benefits the provoker or scammer at the expense of his target. They are essentially target ads. The water gun is used to conceal the installed “key logger” or the actual weapon in this situation – the false sense of interiority that has been weaponized against oneself. The words “gun” or “strap” are user account passwords that have been given by the colonists to the colonized subjects to protect the internal states and the historical inventory of their planted subjecthood. Not only is the word “gun” a password, it is also the command. It is code at its most intrinsic, as it does what it says: it opens the front door of a system so that it’s internal states can be manipulated, a system that the colonist already well and truly knows.

“The colonist and the colonized are old acquaintances. And consequently, colonist is right when he says he “knows” them. It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject. The colonist derives his validity, i.e., his wealth, from the colonial system”.[7]

Race is an interface of the colonial system. It is an interactive interface that provides mastery over the racialized subject. It creates users that can use direct manipulation in order to control the system. From a cybernetic perspective, its operational logic is similar to a phenomenon called hysteresis, which is “the time-based dependence of a system’s output on present and past inputs. The dependence arises because the history affects the value of an internal state. To predict its future outputs, either its internal state or its history must be known”.[8]

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The provoked black kids in the video are involuntarily used as extras in an act of extracting someone’s historical value. One might even go so far as to say that they are being treated like items in an antique shop that can be resold not for their material properties but for the intangible properties that are connected with history. History allows these intangible properties to be used for producing material effects. In the case of “Hood Pranks” historical value is extracted via provocation of violent behavior: the extras are put to work, to produce viral images of violence for a scarce attention economy.

In an interview on HOT97, DennisCeeTv stated that out of the hundreds of pranking scenes they film, only a few are worth publishing online, since in most cases the involuntary extras have failed to comply with their provocations[9]. Only, the few examples where the situation explodes make it online, in hopes of being able to produce millions of views. They produce these videos because racist biases are a relevant topic and filter attention. A demand exists for such imagery, and they provide the supply. The seemingly brave plunge into the hood to get beaten up enables them to monetize on the punches and kicks by converting them into millions of clicks. They produce users for their channel in order to be eligible for commercial sponsorships in the same way YouTube as an interface and database is interpellating them as users. “Hood Pranksters” are trying to get commercial sponsorships for their channel. Such sponsorships require displaying predictive targeted ads to the users of their channel based on their online activity logs. Their behavior is aligned with the prediction algorithms.

“Hood Pranks” target the black kids with their “guns” because a prevalent prejudice associates high rates of criminal activity with predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods and assumes that there is a demand for weapons in such areas. While they are offering the gun to the black kids in the hood to interpellate them into a racialized criminal subjecthood, the pranksters themselves (while presuming to be autonomous subjects empowered by an interface) are unaware of their own use as proxies for the database discourse of YouTube that, in turn, interpellates them as entrepreneurs. They are the pets, the bots, the cyborgs, the zombies, the low-level characters used by Runescape scammers – the proxies of advanced capitalism running wild. They are the nature-culture amalgams in a world where the conflation of nature and culture is a natural state of neo-liberalism.

“You are not, however, aware of software’s constant constriction and interpellation (also known as its “user-friendliness”) unless you find yourself frustrated with its defaults (which are remarkably referred to as your preferences*)”.[10]

*Read: A gun.

 

 

Acknowledgements: I wish to sincerely thank all the people whose patience, proofreading, edits and numerous conversations contributed crucially to finalizing this text: Vera Tollmann, Hito Steyerl, Ana Teixeira Pinto, Ying Sze Pek, Boaz Levin, Artur Sanglepp, Douglas Boatwright, Jiann-Chyng Tu, Johann Sander Puustusmaa, Max Schmötzer, Fred Lamb, the Lensbased Writing Group and the “On Projection” workshop with DAS.

 

 

 

[1] “The process of subject formation in the discourse of databases operates very differently from the panopticon. Foucault argued that the subjects constituted by the panopticon were the modern, ‘interiorized’ individual, the one who was conscious of his or her own self-determination. The process of subject constitution was one of ‘subjectification,’ of producing individuals with a (false) sense of their own interiority. With the super-panopticon, on the contrary, subject constitution takes an opposing course of ‘objectification,’ of producing individuals with dispersed identities, identities of which the individuals might not even be aware. The scandal, perhaps, of the super-panopticon is its flagrant violation of the great principle modern individual, of its centered, ‘subjectified’ interiority.”

Mark Poster, “Databases as discourse, or electronic interpellations”. In: Computers, Surveillance, and Privacy. Ed. David Lyon and Elia Zureik. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1996, 93.

[2] “… we need to rethink dogs, cats, and other sofa-based companions today as cutting across species partitions not only affectively, but also organically, so to speak. As nature–cultural compounds, these animals qualify as cyborgs, that is to say as creatures of mixity or vectors of posthuman relationality.” Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press 2013, 73.

[3] “Programmability is thus not only crucial to understanding the operation of language but also to how language comes more and more to stand in for – becomes the essence or generator of – what is visible.” Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory. Cambridge MA: MIT Press 2011, 113.

[4] Ibid, 5,6.

[5] Ibid, 126.

[6] For a good example see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pp17E4E-O8

[7] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press 1963, 2.

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hysteresis

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9EC3BrXmc4

[10] Ibid, 67.

 

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