The Geopolitics of the Cloud
* Monika Halkorts essay was originally published in SCORES, an interdisciplinary journal published by Tanzquartier Wien linking performance theory with critical practice across a wide range of artistic and intellectual fields.*
Every year hundreds of refugees and undocumented migrants are kidnapped in Ethiopia, Sudan and the surrounding areas. Once captured they are sold to organised gangs in the Sinai desert, who trade their bodies in exchange for ransom from relatives and friends. Ninety-five per cent of the hostages are Eritreans desperate to escape the repressive and poor living conditions in their country. They include men, women, children and accompanying infants, in search for a better life in Europe or Israel. Their vulnerability makes them a particularly inviting target. Leaving Eritrea requires hard-to-obtain travel visas, leading many to pay traffickers to smuggle them out. Once across the border they often deliberately burn their passports so as to avoid repatriation. Others are forcefully dispossessed of their IDs once they have been sold off to criminal gangs.
Relatives and friends rarely seek help from security forces for fear that the hostages will be arrested or killed in release operations. Human-rights activists have reported numerous occasions where captives have been shot by Egyptian or Israeli border police soon after they were freed (van Reisen, Estefanos, & Rijken, 2012). This pervasive fear enables the kidnappers to operate by and large untroubled by unwanted attention. Demands for ransom can reach up to $50,000 for each hostage held.
All this is well documented by human-rights activists, researchers and the news media, yet their reports have so far not produced any effective response. The Egyptian authorities reject any responsibility for the hostages, based on the fact that they have entered the country illegally. Going after the kidnappers themselves, on the other hand, has proven difficult, because of the ongoing conflict between the Egyptian military and the armed insurgency in Sinai.
The ineffectiveness of testimonial evidence in preventing crimes against humanity is of course nothing new in the history of human-rights violations. The lack of political intervention against the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur comes as powerful reminder that visual or oral evidence is by no means a guarantee for mobilising political action or support. Yet the fateful trap of the Eritrean hostages points to a constitutive shift in the political economy of suffering and testimony, whose ethical implications have yet to be fully understood. In what follows I am reading this shift in context with the wider neo-liberal restructuring of political and moral publics and their articulation with new communicative domains. The current juncture of personalized mass communication and human mobility, I will suggest, introduced a whole new layer of sovereign authority upon the contemporary order, in which new states of exception can flourish and traditional domains of power over life are fundamentally transformed.
Visual or oral testimony are never self-evident or self-explanatory. They require purposeful interpretation to produce cultural sensibilities for action or change. As Keenan (2002, p. 115) writes, left to itself the image compels nothing, nor does it dictate any particular response. It remains a cultural form without guarantees, just like the testimony; always available for reinterpretation, “where everything is open to abuse and appropriation …. shaking ground indeed” (ibid.). 
And yet the testimony persists as a primary medium through which ethical claims are negotiated. Human-rights activists heavily depend on the circulation of images, symbols and personal accounts of suffering to connect audiences to political projects and to evoke sympathy and compassion in support of bodies in need (McLagan, 2007, p.309). For most of the post-WWII era, this mobilisation of conscience has relied on the highly regulated networks of television. They have enabled groups such as Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières and others to create political momentum for a humanitarian or moral cause. As McLagan (2007, pp. 309 - 310) suggests, the corporeality of the body has provided a critical vehicle for the strategic conscription of human empathy into political action. Confronting audiences with testimonial evidence of bodies in pain created a sensuous link between the bodies represented on screen and the bodies in the audience, enabling viewers to recognise themselves in the vulnerability of distant others on display. The shared human condition of embodied existence, in other words, provided the interpretative foil necessary to create an intersubjective space of exchange and identification. It made room for the account of individual suffering to reappear as a recognisable part of the shared human condition from which ethical responsibilities and obligations could be inferred.
The highly individualised landscape of contemporary mass self-communication has radically changed the conditions of possibility for the cultivation of ethical sensibilities through such crafted choreographies of affect. It invited a whole new range of actors to participate in the moral economy of mediated suffering, using far more flexible and targeted modes of assembly to create private publics that do not necessarily share common causes with the public domain. The propaganda machine of ISIS and the communication strategy of the Sinai kidnappers are just two examples here. They come as a harsh reminder of the fact that the persuasive power of testimony is no longer solely in the hands of the victims but rather has become an active instrument of war.
The Sinai kidnappers have proven extremely resourceful in exploiting the affective resonance of mediated suffering. They do not contact the family and relatives of their prisoners directly, but rather force the hostages themselves to call and beg for money in exchange for their release. The hostages are often tortured while still on the phone to increase the emotional pressure and to push for rapid payment. Those who cannot or do not pay risk being killed or harvested for organs that can be traded to make up for the outstanding sum. Emotional blackmail by phone is of course a tactic used in most hostage situations. The key difference here is that these calls do not come from secret or untraceable locations. They are made on regular phonelines registered with mobile service providers which, at least in theory, would allow anyone interested in freeing the hostages to locate and identify the kidnappers. What prevents their arrest is the legal and political impasse and complacency surrounding refugee and migrant populations. This impasse cannot be explained with the ineffectiveness of state and humanitarian actors alone. It requires taking a closer look at how long standing political and moral deficits articulate to the emergence of new forms of sovereign power as a direct result of global communication networks on a planetary scale.
The universal addressing scheme of cloud computing and mobile phone companies, as Benjamin Bratton (2012) suggests, has linked bodies, objects and events into an abyss-like field of information exchange in which the old Westphalian order of territorial jurisdiction is increasingly overwritten by new bio-political regimes. The flexible system of IP addresses and geo locators, in this view, confronts us with a new type of sovereign that shifts the ability to regulate movement, transactions and the well-being of populations away from inter-governmental organisations and the state.
Bratton’s observation rests on the following assumption: for a thing or event to participate in the world it needs to have an address, a unique identity that makes it available for connections with other things. On its own, it is not present. It needs to be made into an “it”, with a discrete location, to become recognisable, addressable and marked. This has traditionally been achieved by formal addressing tables, such as post codes, street addresses, or unique citizen ID numbers. Together they have provided the key political technologies for the organisation of political space in the modern era that has both demarcated and legitimated the sovereign authority of the state (Bratton, 2016, p. 193; Bratton, 2012). The global addressing scheme of mobile phone and internet providers no longer corresponds with the political geography inherited from this Westphalian order. It has superimposed a whole new layer of sovereign actors onto the territorial grid capable of transcending national borders and jurisdictions, leading incommensurate logics of governance and geography to overlap and collide.
Social media such as Facebook, Google Maps, or mobile phone apps do not distinguish between citizens, migrants, kidnappers or refugee populations. They are just as likely to provide their services irrespective of the user’s legal or political status or circumstance. This is not to suggest that there are no authentication mechanisms and security checks built into the global communication infrastructure or to ignore the increasing encroachment on personal data by national and international security agencies. The paradoxical coexistence of ever tighter mechanisms of electronic surveillance and biometric regimes and the acceleration of unregulated population movements rather points to the asymmetrical mix of formal and informal jurisdictions that defines our current moment, and that lead public and private laws to feed off of each other in ways that render the nature and scope of sovereign jurisdictions ever more uncertain and unclear. As Bratton (2012) remarks, states are increasingly taking on the form of cloud-based platforms by extending their reach to far-flung data centres that are formally not part of their political control. Data and communication service providers, on the other hand, increasingly overrule the state’s capacity to regulate and track social connectivity and participation, re-scripting the public sphere alongside the competitive market principles of corporate law. The result is an explosive mix of “productive accidents”, Bratton (ibid.) concludes, in which new states of exception can flourish and new boundaries can be drawn.
Bearing this in mind it becomes possible to see how the tragic fate of the Eritrean refugees, stacked away in secretive desert prisons, stands for a far wider shift in the troubled history of publicity, indifference and mediated suffering. The fact that their testimony has so far not succeeded in attracting sufficient attention is not simply the effect of the political and moral deficits or the over-saturation of pain in human-rights discourse. It shows how the privatisation of political and moral publics through new addressing schemes articulates with the wider neoliberal restructuring of common interests, and recalibrates social and ethical imperatives alongside individual interests and capital gains. The result is a radical transformation of the public sphere into an infinitely scalable entity that enabled the kidnappers to cynically exploit the strategic purchase of human testimony and to perform the most inhuman acts of violence “live” in front of carefully crafted audiences, whose compassion has effectively fenced off unwanted public attention and drastically reduced the ability to mobilise action in support of the refugees. Being able to contain the persuasive power of testimony within the private networks of family and friends has left the decision to let live or let die safely in the hands of the kidnappers, conjuring up a system of affective capture in which the distinction between lives to be saved and lives to be abandoned is made contingent on the availability of capital and private funds.
Bratton, B. (2012), “The Cloud, the State, and the Stack: Metahaven in Conversation with Benjamin Bratton”, Metahaven interview, retrieved 15 May 2016, from: http://mthvn.tumblr.com/post/38098461078/thecloudthestateandthestack
Bratton, B. (2016), The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Keenan, T. (2002), “Publicity and Indifference (Sarajevo on Television) ”, PMLA, 117 (1, Special Topic: Mobile Citizens, Media States ), pp. 104-116.
McLagan, M. (2007). “Human Rights, Testimony and Transnational Publicity”, in M. Feher, G. Krikorian, & Y. McKee, Non-Governmental Politics (pp. 304 - 317), New York: Zone Books.
van Reisen, M., Estefanos, M., & Rijken, C. (2012), Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death, Brussels: Wolf Legal Publishers (WLP).
 The images of ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica, Bosnia, here are a powerful case in point. They eventually convinced the international community to intervene, Yet only through peace-keeping forces, without a legal mandate to stop or confront the warring groups. This allowed genocidal killings to persist right in front of the eyes of international peace keepers, leading to widespread condemnation of the UN’s response.