Mirror [draft] [#digitalkeywords]

“The business proposition of cloud companies is that their mirroring is an affordable way of securing retrievable data. The compromise is that mirroring liberates and at once captures the very images and information it displaces, diffracts, and makes autonomous… While the capture of mirrored data for surplus production should be clear, mirroring is also an action within counterhegemonic information activism. In this way, mirroring is not neutral but rather a tool for both liberation and capture, for activist visibility and visibility-as-a-trap.”

The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)


Mirror — Adam Fish, Lancaster University

The mirror is one of most trafficked metaphors in Western thought. In Ancient Greek mythology, Narcissus dies transfixed on his reflection in a spring. According to early sociology, we are a “looking glass self.” Our identities are formed when we mirror how we think others see us (Cooley 1902). In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty (1979) shatters the Enlightenment goal that through scientific inquiry the mind could mirror nature, harboring replicas in mental formula. Thus, from antiquity onward, the mirror metaphor has been used to describe everything from vanity, to subject formation, to consensual reality. Today, information companies and information activists alike call data duplication mirroring but often fail to acknowledge how the symbolism of this term may impact its use. Mirrors are more complex entities than simple facsimiles. Mirrors echo the intricacies of data practice. Below I endeavor to explain how for information activists and information firms, mirroring is an exploit of networks and computers to remain visible by capturing “eyeballs.”

Mirrors are metaphors for what they reflect. In Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll (1871) has Alice journey through a mirror and into a parallel and parable-rich universe of reversals. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), the mirroring portrait ages but the protagonist does not. Hillel Schwartz (1998) traces this history and our obsession with twins, replicas, duplicates, decoys, counterfeits, portraits, mannequins, clones, replays, photocopies, and forgeries. The mirror metaphor continues into the digital age. The United Kingdom’s Channel Four television series the Black Mirror is a drama that comments on a dystopic future of increasing connectivity. Charlie Booker’s programme sees our mobile and laptop screens as black mirrors into which we stare as if Narcissus and which reflect back our self-destructive ways. Co-founder of file-sharing company The Pirate Bay, Peter Sunde, believes that copying is genetically coded, saying: “People learn by copying others. All the knowledge we have today, and all success is based on this simple fact – we are copies.” As a locus for the confluence of metaphysics and materiality, mirrors are a way to see how the practical and metaphoric are co-constituted in database worlds.

This short entry has both the philosophical goal of discussing mirrors as a metaphor and a practical objective of showing how mirroring is a practice of activism as well as cloud computing. Below I describe how mirroring in computing is a way of keeping a copy of some or all of a particular content at another site, typically in order to protect and improve its accessibility. Mirroring is a way of working with a multiplication of data. For activists, mirroring is a method to achieve and preserve visibility on networked communication systems. Mirror multiplicities provide opportunities for cloud companies seeking to capture and sell personal information. Geographically dispersed and constituted by different trajectories, speaking of the replication of origins does not do justice to the complexity of mirrors. Instead, I choose to identify mirroring as a form of praxis, a way of being and thinking in the world. In this sometimes confusing hall of mirrors, the practical and the metaphoric, the actual and the virtual, co-create each other in acts of reflection.

Mirrors as Multiples

Computing companies would have us believe that mirroring is the non-rivalrous multiplications of data made possible by packet-switching, storing, and binary technologies. It is achievable because of the copy-and-paste functionality of computers, data, and networks. Cloud computing requires the mirroring or replication of databases for global access and security. Microsoft, which provides a number of cloud computing services, defines “database mirroring” as the maintenance of “two copies of a single database that must reside on different server instances.” Not just a tool for Fortune 500 hegemonic information companies, Wikileaks also “mirrors” its content. They and their supporters mirror content in jurisdictions outside of American reach when faced with the legal shutdown of private servers housing their incendiary cables. Today, sites in at least eleven European nations offer the Wikileaks mirror. The largest peer-to-peer file sharing service in the world, the Pirate Bay, mirrors its links in national jurisdictions where its practices have yet to be deemed illegal (18 countries presently block root access to the Pirate Bay). Mirroring, thus, is a practice for both hegemonic and counterhegemonic actors. But it would be inaccurate to claim that these mirrors are exact replicas.

Microsoft’s is a naïve realist notion that mirrors are precise copies, merely displaced within or across databases. A slightly more complex social constructivist perspective sees mirrors as symbolic representations. In constructivism, mirrors would not be conceived as duplicates but rather as iconic yet accurate depictions. Physicist Karan Barad (2003) challenges both “naïve realist” as well as constructivist interpretations of mirrors, offering a third construal. Echoing Rorty, she says “…the representationalist belief in the power of words to mirror preexisting phenomena is the metaphysical substrate that supports social constructivist, as well as traditional realist, beliefs” (Barad 2003: 802). In this way, mirrors are neither realist copies nor constructed depictions. Rather, mirrors are a data multiplication that maps a contestation over visibility.

To offer robust, secure, and non-delayed access to content it is necessary to store multiples. In cloud computing, content formation is a regenerative process of recomposition from geographically dispersed databases. Numerous scholars identify how database derived depictions of diseases, criminals, and biological processes are visualized not as singular entities but rather as complex beings constituted by numerous coded transections (Mol 2003, Ruppert 2013, MacKenzie and McNally 2013). In these diverse cases, the multiple is not a fragmented nor necessarily contradictory singularity but rather a fluid “field of multiple conjoined actions that cumulatively enact new entities” (Ruppert 2013). The “performative excesses” of visualized multiples, “undo or unmake identities as much as they make them” (Mackenzie and McNally 2013). Structured by databases and unmoored to beginnings, mirrors are multiples with numerous applications for hegemonic and counterhegemonic actors alike.

Mirroring as Activist Visibility

Mirrors transform seeing and what is seen. Through physical vanity mirrors, European Medieval people “came to reflect on, know and judge themselves and others through becoming aware of how they appeared” (Coleman 2013: 5, Melchior-Bonnet 2001). Using lenses and mirrors to transform his studio into a camera obscura, 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer painted not the depth of field and the textures seen by the unmediated human eye but the world as framed by a camera (Steadman 2002). There is power in controlling new regimes of technological-assisted seeing. Historically, writing and printing systems extended the prioritization of the ocular and through it the power given to those who could read, write, print, and cast mortal judgment based on textual studies (Ong 1977, McLuhan 1964). “Scopic regimes” developed in Western science and law to control the power of being able to make something visible and legible (Jay 1992). Likewise, visual technologies assemble the real, the natural, and the moral for Western technoscientific systems (Haraway 1997). Through “seeing like a state,” nations objectify and thereby control colonial bodies (Scott 1999). The will to visibility is also profoundly gendered with cinema historically being produced for the male gaze (Mulvey 1975). Visibility “lies at the intersection of the two domains of aesthetics (relations of perception) and politics (relations of power)” (Brighenti s2007: 324). The counterhegemonic mirroring practices of Wikileaks, The Pirate Bay, and below Anonymous are intimately linked to the ability to be seen.

Mirroring is central to the power to make visible (or invisible) in the networked society. For instance, consider how Anonymous–made famous by hacks, leaks, and performative politics-secures visibility for their political videos by mirroring them across YouTube. The content made visible by their video mirrors solicits viewers to model themselves after politically active bodies. The process by which political films hail viewers to copy revolutionary subjects is called “political mimesis” (Gaines 1994). And yet, while mirrors represent politicized bodies, they cannot be reduced to mere representations. Here, mirrors do not reveal origins but rather locate contestation (Fish forthcoming). The friction revealed by Anonymous video mirrors is over censorship as the Church of Scientology and other opponents of Anonymous attempt to force YouTube to takedown Anonymous videos critical of Scientology. Anonymous video mirrors mark a counterhegemonic will-to-visibility.

Thus, it is true, as Foucault said, that “visibility is a trap,” but not for everyone (1977: 200). For both media corporations and activists, visibility is a tool for empowerment. The power to make him visible or her invisible are powers traditionally reserved for entrenched elites. Scandals recorded on cameras and distributed online now interrupt the lives of political and economic elites who used to be able to tightly control their self-presentation (Goffman 1956, Thompson 2005). Reality television provides visibility to some and through it often stigmatizes social classes through televised spectacle (Tyler 2011, Couldry 2010). As a read/write medium capable of delivering text, image, and moving pictures, the internet exacerbates ocular-centrism as well as the dangers and possibilities of visibility. Hacks, leaks, and video mirrors are forms of visual counter-power. The power to see and not be seen-from the eye training of literacy, to the male gaze in cinema, to cultures of self-presentation and reality television, to visibility optimization industries of fashion and advertising, to video mirroring-constitutes regimes of power and counter-power in contemporary networked society.

The counterhegemonic mirroring of Wikileaks, Anonymous, and The Pirate Bay, are examples of an interventionary “misuse” of pre-existing capitalist information infrastructure that diversifies and magnifies the visualization of radical voice (Soderberg 2010). Despite using for-profit social media platforms and thereby being captured within circuits of techno-capitalism (Dean 2010), grassroots political visibility can be a practice-based form of access and voice that resists erasure (Couldry 2010). Mirroring is one among many promising but nonetheless uneven forms of technological resistance used both for and against the for-profit capture of information resources.

Capturing the Mirror

One reading sees human prehistory as the progress of information creation and control (Gleik 2011). Throughout human evolution, the size and complexity of the neocortex, language, and group dynamic increased collectively (Dunbar 1993). The storage of information in symbolic systems and durable substances of rock, wood, fiber-and later digital databases-further amplified the complexity of the brain, language, and society (Ong 1977, McLuhan 1964). Mirroring is a later manifestation of the prehistoric practice of data creation, control, and manipulation. But while corporately owned databases are continuations of prehistoric information storage, they also structure data in a particular way for a particular purpose. Structures and risks associated with the potentials of database mirrors, I would argue, are political economic in nature. In terms of the virtual, Deleuze discussed the “double-movement of liberation and capture” (1972). While mirrors offer opportunities for the liberation of activist visibility, they also provide data corporations opportunities to capture social capital. Chow says captivation “is semantically suspended between an aggressive move and an affective state, and carries within it the force of the trap in both active and reactive senses” (Chow 2012: 48 in Berry 2014). In this way, reflexively produced material and affectual data is captured within an informational economy.

The business proposition of cloud companies is that their mirroring is an affordable way of securing retrievable data. The compromise is that mirroring liberates and at once captures the very images and information it displaces, diffracts, and makes autonomous. We are hailed to be responsible with our data by backing it up, to take our lives seriously through constantly drafting autobiographical public digital artifacts, and to work on the move by having our important documents accessible in the cloud. Yet all of this plays into the surveillance and capture of our virtual lives. While the capture of mirrored data for surplus production should be clear, mirroring is also an action within counterhegemonic information activism. In this way, mirroring is not neutral but rather a tool for both liberation and capture, for activist visibility and visibility-as-a-trap.


Mirrors describe copies that are saved in different places. But mirrors are not exact copies. Disambiguated in time and space, the mirror qualitatively differs from that which it mirrors. Rather than mirrors being exact replicas or even reasonable approximations, it is instructive to consider mirrors not as products but rather as processes. Mirrors are complex, in-flux multiples constituted by numerous forces that achieve a degree of autonomy from their origins. In this way, mirroring, or the practice of making mirrors, is a praxis, neither realistic nor representational depictions, but a way of being, believing, and moving in the world. As such, mirrors map two practices that are reactions to a contestation. For activists, mirroring marks a will to remain visible in a world of censorship. Mirrors also map the conflicts around how data is captured and capitalized on by cloud companies. A way to synthesize the politics, political economy, and praxis of mirroring is to consider how mirrors are multiples, autonomous from the things they ostensibly replicate. Ancient and contemporary theories of mirrors are tools used towards the synthesis of the metaphysical and the material of database worlds.


Works Cited

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