FICCI 62 : Cyberfeudalism, Digital Landlords, and Electronic Peasants

Two weeks ago I participated in the 62 edition of the FICCI, the Cartagena de Indias International Film Festival, and had the opportunity to engage in a variety of activities not only related to cinema but also to music, audiovisual collectives, social media and artificial intelligence. Under the central theme of cyberfeudalism, digital landlords and electronic peasants, the festival arranged this year a full program of screenings, workshops, panels, masterclasses, video art installations, networking sessions, and other activities related the social, cultural and economic implications of new technologies. This was my first time attending the FICCI and was surprised by its vibrancy and scope, and by the diversity of participants.

The FICCI takes place in one of my favorite Colombian cities, Cartagena de Indias. The public squares, historical buildings, and amenities of this historical city provide a fantastic variety of spaces for cultural activities. For more than six decades the festival has become an important event for celebrating Latinamerican and international cinema. It provides a space for the meeting of audiences, artists and filmmakers. Furthermore, the Premios India Catalina (Colombian TV and audiovisual awards) have been part of the festival since 1984, capturing the attention of national media. In recent years, the festival has expanded its scope including an audiovisual industry convention (NIDO), public film screening at neighborhoods (cine en los barrios), afro and indigenous media showcases, and laboratories and meetings for collaboration among producers, directors, and curators. The Centro Atico from Universidad Javeriana works with NIDO, co-organizing the participation of researchers and practitioners from academia and industry. It was through Atico that I got invited this year to participate in a panel about social media political economy and a conservatory about Clemencia Echeverri’s video art works.

Although the central theme of the FICCI this year surprised many, it was timely and relevant. It appears at a critical moment where information and communication technologies like the Internet, mobile phones, computers, social media, and AI systems are used by many around the world. Even in countries like Colombia, with deep inequalities and digital divides, these technologies have spread and are being used by big part of the population, companies, and the government. Thinking of the digital revolution in relation to feudalism, landlords and peasants can be controversial and shocking. However, the political and economic global context of the early 21st century, driven by information capitalism has re-created some of the uneven feudal power relationships. This terminology, as Cedric Durand has showed in his book Techno-Feudalism, is useful for criticizing the digital economy dominated by big tech companies, privately owned digital platforms, and data extractivist business models.

Take for instance the case of the design of this year Festival’s promotional image, which was created by a an advertising firm using a generative AI system. When it was presented to the public it sparked a controversy in the national and regional media. The advertising firm explained that an AI generative system produced 62 different images based on a given prompt. One of those images, with blue and green watery colors, and the hidden silhouette of a cyborg face was selected to be printed in flyers, posters, tote bags, programs, and used in digital media pieces for promoting the festival. The critics raised questions about the authorship of the image, the exclusion of human creativity, and the aesthetic qualities. However, as a provocation, the use of an AI generated image was in tune with the theme of techno-feudalism, because the way in which generative AI systems function takes advantage of data created by humans. These systems work by appropriating and using texts, photographs, images, and other content that has been created by humans, and that once digitized and structured in data bases, can be processed and analyzed by computers for creating new content. In that sense, the big tech companies that have the capacity to develop and run AI generative systems are appropriating the data, content and culture that humans have made.

In the panel I moderated and helped to organize we discussed the presumed free costs of social media (“La presunta gratuidad de las redes sociales“). Bringing together perspectives from journalism (Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez), academia (Andrés Laverde), and digital marketing (Evlyn Gómez), we addressed critical issues such as the relationship of digital platforms’ business model with the the rise of misinformation, hate speech, online violence and political polarization. Moreover, we talked about the impact of the use of these platforms on people’s well-being and human rights. One of the controversial points we touched in our panel was the possibility of developing alternative business models for social media. For instance, a model based on cooperation, redistribution and democratic data governance in which people could pay for the platforms services, and also get paid for the data they produce and the work they do on the platforms (e.g. content creation, consumption, distribution, curation).

At the end of our discussion, all the participants agreed on the need of supporting and promoting media education for all. Big tech companies, governments, and the society as a whole have a responsibility fostering media and digital literacies among all citizens and users of information and communication technologies (particularly among youth and children, which are some of the most avid users of digital tools and services). Although media education, alone, would not solve the wicked problems we are confronting today, it can be one of the multiple interventions that can help to foster a more just and inclusive world. Particularly in countries from the Global South characterized by high levels of inequality like Colombia, media and information literacy programs for all population groups are urgently needed. The FICCI, in this sense, can play an important role opening spaces for discussing and fostering media education, bringing together multiple stakeholders that are already working in this field, and making visible edu-comunicación programs, initiatives and collectives that are already taking place in the local and regional context.

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