Social inequality, the digital mode of production, and the causes and consequences of imperial violence in the early 21st Century are the unifying themes of my research. There is much practical, intellectual, and empirical value to be derived from combining unapologetic Marxist theory and the political economy of communication methodologies to study the intersections of wealth and power in light of the post-war factors that have shaped them. Accordingly, my teaching and scholarship are necessarily broad as I study the ramifications of structural injustices and social stratifications in the Global North and South respectfully. In the coming years my research agenda will focus on how states, markets, and militaries mediate human relationships.
Recent Research Projects
This interest in social inequality is the prevailing theme of my dissertation, Luck and Liberty, a project that I completed in 2016 at Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication under the direction of Prof. Rick Gruneau. I intervene in contemporary debates on life chances and the struggle over economic resources as they shape accumulated disadvantage and life chances to adjudicate debates between the moral philosophies of liberalism, conservatism, and Marxism. This project demonstrates that much of what a person seeks to claim as their own is radically contingent. Irrespective of whether economic inequalities are caused by the genetic lottery of natural talents, the social lottery of opportunities to develop talents, or the market lottery where a person’s attributes become talents because they just happen to be in demand, these inequalities remain inherently unjust. I make this intervention because too often debates about social inequality become squabbles about the accuracy of data and the suitability of econometric models while missing the greater point about ethics and exploitation, all of which distract from redistribution efforts. A chapter critiquing the conceptualization of life chances by Giddens, Beck, and Bauman has been accepted by The Journal of Classical Sociology. Book proposals have been sent to several university presses, including Cambridge University Press and McGill-Queens University Press.
My most recent research investigates the ongoing dynamic of capital and constraint. My 2017 book Capital, State, Empire: The New American Way of Digital Warfare (University of Westminster Press) which was published in a series edited by Prof. Christian Fuchs, is the initial outcome of this project. Specifically, I examine the American security state’s encroachment on digital and civil liberties and the scramble for positions within the digital mode of production. Using revisionist Black-Marxism to analyze the security state’s historical impulse to weaponize communication technologies, I argue that ‘digital coercion’ is organized by a security state managing an oppressive labor regime. This regime has long institutional antecedents in genocide, slavery, and dispossession, but now adds mechanisms like computationally aided global dragnet surveillance, drone and cyber-warfare, and protracted conflicts abroad. One can see these securitization dynamics inside the United States as well, for instance in the militarized policing of the most vulnerable, data-profiling, and automated attempts to subvert dissent. My central proposition is the totality of imperial relations, both foreign and domestic, are geared towards accumulating value through extraction and exploitation, themselves amplified by digital means that allow for unprecedented reach in both scope and scale. New computational techniques of ideological manipulation are currently being developed to mystify these dynamics. In short, I examined the aspects of American imperialism enabled by digital technology as it relates to widening social inequality in the early 21st century.
The issues addressed in these two projects will take on great importance in the coming years as governments consider whether to implement ‘citizen scores’ based on data produced by sensors and networked computing, a development that will exacerbate inequalities and disparities. Later in this letter I provide an overview of my research agenda, but suffice to say here my methodological and theoretical choices are selected to drive an analysis that examines and creates potential for equitable social change, an agenda I also to bring to my undergraduate and postgraduate teaching.
My pedagogical experience reflects the diversity of my publication history, the intellectual pluralism I have sought as an academic, and the various regions in which I have taught. At The UWI I am responsible for teaching the year-long foundational MPhil/PhD Communication Theory seminar. The main goal of the course is to examine the Caribbean foundations of modern social and cultural thought. The course is divided between West Indian theorists who have traversed the diaspora—Frantz Fanon, Claudia Jones, C. L. R. James, and Stuart Hall—as well as those located primarily within the region—Lloyd Best, Patricia Mohammed, Louis Regis and Charmaine Crawford. Essentially the course is designed to survey how the region has contributed to global theoretical developments to encourage postgraduate students to meaningfully contribute to international debates in communication and media studies, ideally in a way that decenters the discipline.
At The UWI and SFU I have taught several large 100-200 student undergraduate survey classes, which examine contemporary issues such as the reorganization of the workplace and class decomposition, complemented with discussions about Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the National Security State. These topical examples show the extensive restructuring of social life by various technologies and so are useful to apply the more abstract concepts in communication and media theory. I have also taught six iterations of a 20-student seminar on media and modernity. As political consciousness is incomplete without historical consciousness, I begin with modern German intellectual thought, from Kant and Hegel to Marx and Adorno. This provides an interesting juxtaposition for my students to study authors like C. L. R. James and Stuart Hall, theorists whose work is an extension and rebuttal to topics like alienation and ideology. Throughout, I sought to demonstrate the roots of heterodox economic analysis, something that is relevant for undergraduates as their expected vocations are undertaken in a society colored by an enthusiasm for the digital mode of production. I find students are amenable to this approach because they study economies, not economics.
If the opportunity presents itself, I would like to develop a course called A Brief History of Cyberwar: Policy Challenges for 21st Century. Given a world where Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, hacking and data breaches, Russian interference in the 2016 US election and Stuxnet routinely make the headlines, this course would examine the existing and potential threat posed by cyberwar to help post-graduate students critically understand and respond to these developments, either as activists in civil society or as policy-makers in governmental positions. Using texts like Herbert Schiller’s Mass Communications and American Empire and Donald Mackenzie’s Inventing Accuracy, the first third of the class will examine the rise of the military industrial complex through case studies like the development of GPS navigation and rocket guidance systems. Building upon these research traditions, the next part of the course would focus on contemporary concerns such as collaborations between the UK’s GCHQ and the US’s NSA, and digital repression of activists in the Arab Spring. Students would read chapters from Peter Singer’s Cybersecurity and Cyberwar as well as Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas. Finally, the course would end with attention to on-the-horizon technological systems, such as ‘citizen-scores,’ bio-mimicry, financial weapons of mass destruction and weaponized machine learning. This past-present-future narrative arc would provide students with opportunities to productively extend and test their theoretical knowledge and empirical understanding of these topical issues, issues they may confront in their professional vocations. Likewise, I think there is much value in students examining how elements within these broad qualitative and quantitative transformations are both planned and unplanned.
Altogether my pedagogical and research experience provides me with the grounding to teach competently in several areas as well as to supervise a broad range of graduate students. Since joining The UWI in 2016, I have been responsible for teaching MA, MPhil, and PhD students. Regarding direct supervision, while still at an early stage in their research, Ryan Jaggernath (MPhil) and Antonia Mungal (MPhil) are writing on alienation; same too with Myireen Murai (MA) and Stephanie Rattan (MA), both new students in the COMS postgraduate program. I also supervise students at the Institute of International Relations. Having written on decolonizing international relations theory, Mishanna Oudit (MSc) submitted in mid-2018. By contrast, Ria Sewdass (MSc) should submit her project on digital weapons of mass destruction this summer. In Geography, I sit on Meera Mahase’s (MPhil) committee. In the incoming 2018/2019 Communication postgraduate cohort I am set to be the supervisor or on the committee of 2 PhD students and 2 MPhil students. Finally, with colleagues Dr. Gabrielle Hezekiah and Dr. David Massey, I organized a postgraduate skills workshop held in April 2018. Exercising a duty of mentorship and attuned to the realities of the field, this seminar supported the professional development of the postgraduate students to assist them to become more competitive before they enter the academic labor market. The range demonstrates that I am an active and versatile supervisor able to cater to the needs of students across the university. The interdisciplinary range demonstrates that I am an active and versatile supervisor able to cater to the needs of students from across the theoretical spectrum. My regional experience in Southern Africa, North America and the Caribbean will support students desiring to undertake comparative studies for their dissertations.
I plan to consolidate my research into social inequality and digital-capitalism over the next decade. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet are some the most valuable firms in the US by stock market value. Uber, Airbnb, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Fitbit, Spotify, Dropbox, WhatsApp, Tumblr, Pinterest are all examples of billion dollar companies created after 2005. But this wealth is generated from massive unpaid labor as users unwittingly turn themselves into commodities. Moreover, Silicon Valley controls the inescapable foundation of the contemporary economy—cell phones, social networks, cloud computing, retail, logistics and the like, while much of the initial basic research was funded by military budgets. This is one reason to be suspect of research initiatives into artificial intelligence and machine learning. These kinds of software that are intended for mechanistic robotic humanoids like the Atlas, a robot produced by Alphabet-owned Boston Dynamics. Given that Boston Dynamics is a weapons manufacturer that tests technology with DARPA, the door is open for military uses. So not only do these digital technologies companies shape everyday perception, collude to suppress wages and destroy public goods, they cooperate with state security forces and are becoming arms manufacturers. This aspiration is of utmost concern because it leaves the US ripe for tyranny. And because of the central place of the US in the international political economy, this dynamic is at the heart of a global ‘democratic recession’ beginning in the early 21st century. My exploration of these issues, which I call Algorithms and the End of Politics, examines the social consequences of developments that foreclose the possibility of politics, let alone activities that seek to shift the political frame.
My investigation of military and information technology is an uncommon but one of the most urgent topics for Media and Communication Studies. Sadly, disciplinary stalwarts have made this argument for decades to little avail. Consider how in the mid-1980s, Vincent Mosco lamented how this area was “ignored.” In early 2017 he has grounds to come to the same conclusion, that “scholars who study media and new communication technology tend to ignore the military in favour of examining social media.” This continuing oversight is even more perplexing considering that the US DoD with upwards of 1.3 million active service members and augmented with near 750,000 civilians, is one of the world’s largest employers, and certainly the biggest single employer in the US. Moreover, with a budget of $600 billion in 2015, the DoD is the single biggest purchaser of information and communication goods; this labor process warrants critical attention. If anything, it is fair to say that Herb and Dan Schiller—along with a handful of other researchers—are the exceptions to this other disciplinary ‘blindspot.’ What is required is an analysis of the military that understands it as a product of the historical relationship between war and society.
I aim to drive this research agenda within the field of Media and Communication Studies by combining core disciplinary concepts, like ‘strategic centers of calculation’ and ‘scopic regimes’ with novel concepts I have developed, like ‘digital coercion’ and ‘economies of bondage.’ The aim of this research agenda is simple: plot selected features of the American social structure to demonstrate how a capitalist state creates structural injustices, stratifications, and inequalities. Examining these ‘laws of motion’ further involves a treatment of how intense extraction and exploitation creates surpluses that are then used to fund global indirect and informal rule to ensure conducive conditions for capital accumulation. Accordingly, it is important to resist bifurcating domestic and international affairs for they rarely act in isolation of one another; instead, this scope can tell us much about the relationship between rulers and ruled irrespective of whether these groups live in the US or elsewhere. Aiming to shape disciplinary discussions along these lines, I intend to submit papers to journals such as Theory, Culture & Society, Media, Culture & Society, and TripleC.
Outreach and Service
Since taking up my position with The UWI, I have become involved in several outreach efforts. For example, I have consulted pro-bono for The National Registry of Artists and Cultural Workers, Government of Trinidad and Tobago. My expertise was requested to adjudicate whether media workers meet criteria set by EU vocational schema. Equally rewarding was a public talk I organized with Dr. Levi Gahman in March 2017 at The UWI. Humans Cause Global Warming brought together Dr. Keith Miller, Dr. Keron Niles, and Mr. Kenneth Kerr to address the fallacious arguments that climate-skeptics deploy to derail good-faith deliberative democracy. Efforts like this, I believe, are especially important given Trinidad and Tobago’s natural heritage will be jeopardized by climate change well before many countries in the Global North. Similarly, in April 2018 I organized another public talk with Dr. Gahman. With 200 people in the audience and UWI TV recording the event, Can Austerity Bring a ‘Better Future for All?’ had Dr. Dylan Kerrigan, Ms. Sunity Maharaj, and Dr. Daren Conrad, among others, speak to the policies and politics of austerity in Trinidad and Tobago. Following the event I was invited to do an interview on Andy Johnson’s show at Power102FM. Likewise, UWI Today will run a feature article on the evening in their June 2018 issue. Lastly, I have been invited by Dr. Hamid Ghany to speak about my new project, Algorithms and the End of Politics at the SALISES Forum, The Role of Social Media in National Elections in Trinidad and Tobago, set to take place in early June 2018.
I have also taken the time to seek opportunities to write shorter pieces in outlets that reach a broad general readership. For example, I have published op-eds with Prof. Henry Giroux’s SSHRC funded Public Intellectual Project, the LSE Review of Books, as well as for the British journal The Sociological Review’s website. In this last venue, I wrote about trauma and Prof. Kelly Oliver’s argument that victims are seeking witnesses to horrors beyond recognition. Given my area of research, the UK offers several outlets for public writing, opportunities I would use to pursue C. Wright Mills’ dictum that work must be of “direct relevance to urgent public issues and insistent human troubles.” Lastly, I have 12 years of experience in academic service, event management and public engagement. While at the University of the Witwatersrand, I was a co-organizer of the Political Studies Forum. Responsibilities for this position included event planning, moderation of weekly seminars, and soliciting speakers. Disciplinary service includes reviewing for First Monday, TripleC, and since 2014, the ICA Philosophy, Theory, and Critique division.
If the option exists in the next years, I would apply for an RDI Grant to support the completion of Algorithms and the End of Politics. But before doing so that I would most likely apply for smaller amounts as well. My record in this regard is promising. For example, I was awarded a Prestigious Grant by the South African National Science Foundation to study reproductive labor in network computing. For this project I examined how African techno-feminists used open-source software to build ‘technologies of emancipation.’ Conducting a 2-year multi-site institutional ethnography, I studied how these women’s groups compiled and distributed their software bundles, offered technical support, and generally provided the technological backbone for South African civil society. More recently, SFU funded a public writing project that I conceptualized and designed, which was supported by Prof. Frederik Lesage. This project produced a set of resources to help graduate students become stronger writers. Specifically, the grant was used to develop a repository of pedagogical programming to support ‘public writing’—whether for an academic, popular, or hybrid audiences. These resources comprise an online module, which was developed, tested, and delivered through a series of workshops and seminars. The online module is in use at SFU and is used by graduate students within the School of Communication during their methodology course. The module has also been made available to graduate students across the university.
Social and technological developments can unfold in an unexpected fashion meaning it can be somewhat difficult to project a research agenda beyond a decade, let alone the concepts needed for the projects that investigate events yet to occur. Even so, to speculate, my assessment is that the discipline of Media and Communication Studies will require a more robust consideration of the consequences of modernity. I think communication and media scholars do not think carefully enough about the large-scale social transformations that have occurred over the past few centuries thereby leaving them unable to fully comprehend the significance of the drastic transformation currently underway, transformations that will be greater than modernity. Nor do we not pay enough attention to the extraordinary technological developments that have led to ever more basic tasks and social functions being predetermined. A project like Algorithms and the End of Politics is important because barriers have been (and are being) created that twat our participation in our own societies. These are topics that will matter in the coming decades ahead. With a critical orientation, The UWI provides an opportunity for this research to have a potential positive impact by guiding the MA, MPhil, and PhD students who will become influential policy-makers, activists, and scholars. If we do this well, they can use the knowledge gained in their studies to advance egalitarian aspirations and democratic gains.