What We're Losing

It’s 12:51 AM and it’s no surprise I’m having trouble sleeping. I slept strangely well the past few days, probably because with all the stress and anxiety I’ve been dead tired by 10 PM. Today was in many ways “day one,” even though the coronavirus pandemic has been going on for months now. Day one of total social distancing, more or less. My spouse and I spent the day holed up in our apartment with our cat trying to get on with something resembling normal, even though normal is utterly impossible.

I’ve left Twitter for a bit, so I don’t imagine anyone is going to see this post. If my blog has a regular readership, I’ll never really know it. The cop shit post got some light traction, which was good to see. It’s a post I wrote in anger and urgency. I guess I’m writing this one in grief.

A week ago, in the midst of all the shut downs and the closures, before we really understood in our bones what social distancing meant, I met with my dissertation advisor, Matthew Kirschenbaum, who’s a wonderful person and without who I would have never gotten as far in my graduate career as I have. We were meeting about my second chapter, which I had given him a draft of a few weeks prior, and which my charge over the next month is to revise. We did as well as we could; I think we both welcomed having something else to direct our energies towards. Sitting and talking about ideas.

But Matt said something that I’ve been thinking about constantly, in the midst of all of the closures and the distancing and the panic: “I keep mourning what we’re losing.” There are the concrete things we’re losing: conferences, symposia, meetings, classes, and the like. And then there are possibilities we’re losing: research, ideas, energies we might have had that we don’t now. I’m not saying we’ll never get that time back. Goodness knows if there is any lesson to be gained from this pandemic it’s that we have built a world with no slack in it, and particularly we as academics have internalized a work ethic that has no slack, and we are all stretched to breaking all the time, except a lucky few of us with time and resources, and even then that time and those resources don’t matter because no one does anything alone, and when everyone else gets sick it doesn’t matter how productive you are because we’re all sick. A pandemic is clarifying, I guess.

I should revise this and clean it up in the morning but I don’t care to, because that’s the world we live in now.

Anyway, here’s the abstract for the paper I would have written for SCMS this year. I don’t think I’ll ever write the paper, at least not in this form and for this forum. Maybe we’ll pitch the panel again next year and I’ll do it, but I don’t know if I have the heart anymore. It was a project I originally developed with my friend Setsuko Yokoyama, who’s in the home stretch of finishing her dissertation. Due to social distancing guidelines I guess I won’t be able to celebrate in person with her when she defends in a few months.

The grief is real and I’m trying to figure out how to sit with it and honor it and not let it consume me.

Abstract for “Felling the .amazon: The Colonial Geographies of Top-Level Domains”

Who should control the top-level domain (TLD) “.amazon”—one of the world’s largest tech companies, or the South American nations of the Amazonian basin? And by what technologies and techniques is that control exerted? In the spring of 2019, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organization that oversees the internet’s domain names and nameserver databases, ended a seven-year-long dispute between Amazon and eight South American governments over the .amazon TLD, ruling in favor of the company. At stake were not only issues of website branding, but also the logics of how names emerge and circulate on the internet, and how the internet’s infrastructure facilitates the transformation of names into commodities. The .amazon dispute was not the first time that Western companies have expropriated domain names otherwise assigned to the Global South. Domains such as .io (assigned to the islands of the Indian Ocean, now controlled by the U.K.) and .tv (assigned to the Pacific nation of Tuvalu, now controlled by the Virginia corporation Verisign) have long powered Western websites interested in their English-language connotations.

My paper uses these three domain names as case studies to argue that the internet’s current naming infrastructures constitute a neo-colonial project that abstracts the geographical place-names of the Global South, themselves often records of colonial histories, into capitalizable resources available for extraction and speculation. To do so, I explore the technological “stack” through which domain names function and transact across markets, from the point of their initial emergence and propagation across networks to the kinds of disputes that characterize the “.amazon” case. Drawing on media theoretical work on cultural techniques, particularly that of Bernhard Siegert, I argue that the addressing functions of top-level domains spatialize historically colonial geography onto the internet’s nameservers themselves. Domain names thus extend extractive practices that condition our ability to see and be seen on the internet.

revision history for this page