text #2 Getting Into AI Colonialism in Cyprus

It was on 19 September, 2023 that I arrived in Larnaca, Cyprus. Larnaca is the gateway to Cyprus and one of its larger cities; its name is derived from the ancient Greek word for sarcophagus. This name was used as numerous tombs and coffins have been found in the area. The etymology of the name Cyprus is not exactly clear; some theories hold that it refers to the cypress tree, while others claim that it refers to the abundance of copper and bronze found in the area. Names are sometimes indigenous, but are often imposed by the rulers of a particular area. The languages associated with Cyprus include Greek, Latin, Turkish, and English. In some cases, we have no idea how certain names originated. Attempts to establish the origin of names often lead back to colonialism. Names are perhaps the beginning of everything.

While influenced by Greece, Cyprus is geographically closer to Turkey; moreover Cyprus is a member of the European Union, but is closer to the Middle East than to Europe. Does this isolate the island further or challenge its accumulated history? My short one-week residency at the MADLab (Media Arts & Design Research Lab) was aimed at examining all Cyprus’s connections with the outside world – for example, the sea, ships, planes, wireless technology, and marine cables. In particular, the objective was to explore the many myths that are associated with technology. It was conducted by the MADLab (Media Arts & Design Research Lab) falls under the Cyprus University of Technology, which is located in Limassol, a holiday resort and Cyprus’s second city.

During my short stay from 19 September to 28 September, the weather was hot. It was supposed to be cooler near the Troodos mountain range in the center of the island. This is where the familiarly named Mount Olympus (neither the Greek one nor the Martian one) is located. It is home to the Royal Air Force (RAF) of the United Kingdom. It was a base for the British army in the 1800s when they colonized Egypt, and is said to have been a summer retreat for British soldiers due to its cool climate. It is known to be used as a radio listening station and for communications reconnaissance now, particularly the monitoring of radio transmissions from the Middle East.

Close to the Limassol beach is another RAF base, Akrotiri (cape or promontory), which has been there since the 1950s. The base became known during the Suez Crisis of 1956, and given the conflict between Israel and Egypt at the time, it can be said to have a history that leads up to the current Palestinian–Israeli conflict.

Just across the sea from South Cyprus lie the Lebanese capital Beirut, the Palestinian city of Gaza, and the Israeli cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv – at a distance of between 200 km and 270 km, as the crow flies.  

The beautiful beaches of Cyprus overlook these disputed lands. Once again, a war was being fought to colonize a colonized land, and it was happening right in front of me. I wondered whether I could take a boat to the Middle East. Cyprus is a destination for British and Greek holidaymakers, and there are frequent cruises from the UK and Greece to Cyprus. It is a relaxing way to spend a few days at sea and enjoy the weather and scenery. As the crow flies, the distance between Athens and Cyprus is approximately 1,000 km, while the sea route between the UK and Cyprus is considerably longer. I was on the beach in Limassol, scanning the horizon for ships, with Palestine and Israel in the distance (although not visible). A number of yachts owned by wealthy Europeans were anchored at Limassol. However, the only sea route recorded on Google Maps is from Limassol to Ashdod in Israel. Of course, this is also the route used by cruise companies, but there are no ships that provide daily migration services. The name “Ashdod” is said to mean strong fortress or citadel.

Most people in Cyprus travel from the island by plane. Travelling by boat does not appear to be common. If there are ships, they are mainly ferries crossing over to Turkey from North Cyprus, which is under de facto Turkish control.

Even in a country with an unfamiliar history and geography, the signs of colonization were easy to spot. There are borders within the island, separating neighboring countries that are connected by sea; however, it is not possible to travel between these countries by sea. Cyprus is connected to Europe in the distance; there are British troops stationed on the island, as well as  Turkish and European Union soldiers carrying guns. There are only a few cruise ships that connect the island to the Middle East, and a number of European boats are also moored there. That is what I could see. Foreign destinations are just a plane ride away.

During my visit, there was an exhibition called Sea Blindness (curated by Régine Debatty and Carmen Salas) at NeMe art space in Limassol. It was an exhibition that examined the sea from a political, ecological, and economic perspective, and addressed in detail the frictions between refugees and the environment, as well as migration between the Middle East and Europe. Among other works, Jafra Abu Zoulouf (a Palestinian who lives in Limassol) presented a series of landscapes and interviews with people crossing from Israel to Limassol on a cruise ship. This was a month before the current war in Gaza began, but the juxtaposition of the Israeli interviewees expressing their daily impressions of Limassol with the landscape of Haifa – a city situated across the sea from Limassol – made me think that this might be a contemporary colonial landscape.

Of course, I had not come to Cyprus to study the history of European colonization and the conflicts in the Middle East. My topic, following on from my work in Berlin (at the time I was based in Berlin on a five-month fellowship), was artificial intelligence (AI) colonialism – how colonialism is becoming blurred and the role that AI technology is playing in that process of blurring. As I was working on the theme of how colonialism becomes blurred and effectively distorted by AI – while history repeats itself and colonialism never goes away – the history, location, and borders of Cyprus had a certain enlightening effect. South Korea is also an island-like nation with a closed border, so this aspect was somewhat familiar to me; but crossing the border in North Cyprus was a different kind of sensation. On the other hand, colonization by capital – as opposed to by a dictator or emperor – and the data colonialism and AI colonialism that trigger it have no borders.

One of the artists who is researching this borderless AI colonialism and trying to translate it into artistic language is Alexia Achilleos. Alexia was previously an invited artist at Forking Room, which I co-curate, and her work Colonial Landscapes depicts colonial landscapes in Cyprus using GAN(Generative adversarial network) technology. She is currently doing research at MADLab, which provided us with the opportunity to chat about our shared interests. One of her most recent projects is the AI Colonialism Board Game (Cyprus). This game, developed by Alexia, was created to tackle Western-centric AI research and to raise critical thinking relating to cultural differences and local socio-political characteristics in a way that is easy to understand for the general public. This is the Cypriot version of the game, which aims to raise awareness of the social impact and power dynamics of AI in the context of the current situation in Cyprus through a non-academic and interesting approach. In particular, it instrumentalizes prompt-based AI by generating colonial images of Cyprus with AI, referring to a European imperialist fantasy board game.

WIP Festival 2023 / CYENS Centre of Excellence

In a nutshell, the game is based on the premise (perhaps close to the reality) that Cyprus is under AI colonialist control. The “player” is tasked with fighting back against this control, and the goal is to return home by collecting “fragments of decolonial AI” scattered across the map of the island. There is also a “web scraper” role in the game, which interferes with the players from time to time. Interspersed throughout the game are “player cards,” each of which is specifically aimed at discussing how AI colonialism is affecting Cyprus. The various roles can be appointed freely within the team, and the game is witty – with the most pessimistic person of the day taking on the role of “web scraper.” As players and web scrapers collect fragments, they also earn “decolonial speculation cards,” The players and web scraper then go on their separate journeys and meet up again at some stage. At this point, one must draw a “GDPR complaint card” and file a complaint with the Commissioner for Personal Data Protection – the game does not proceed until this complaint is resolved. If the players already have a fragment at this point, it may be taken away as a result of the complaint. If the players return home safely, they read the card they received with their fragment and record their victory by drawing diagrams and predicting the future of Cyprus. If the web scraper arrives home first with all the fragments, then there is a general discussion based on reading cards, reflecting on the victory of the web scraper. The game ends with a discussion on the bleak future and possible solutions.

WIP Festival 2023 / CYENS Centre of Excellence

While the overall structure of the game is universal enough to be applied anywhere, the content of the cards and fragments reveals a number of geopolitical elements that are unique to Cyprus. For example, the game requires players to understand the complex social structure of the island, which is ethnically Greek and Turkish, and others, and religiously Armenian, Maronite, and other sects. Players also need to have an understanding of how the Cypriot constitution defines Latin and Roman. In addition, the game lists information on the various social groups obtained from the census, such as age groups, immigrants, gender, religion, language, and so forth. Therefore, when discussing “the impact of artificial intelligence on communities,” for example, it is necessary to carefully consider each community to arrive at a conclusion. The aim of the game is to understand the power and hierarchy that exists in and around Cyprus, including the data exploitation by international groups.

I had known for some time that Alexia was creating this game, and I often thought about making a Korean version of it. I would imagine that such a Korean version would include many hurdles that web scraper would be happy with – for example, Korea’s IT industry and entertainment which invest heavily in new technologies. Other hurdles include nationalism, national inferiority complex, a society that regards capital as the highest value in life, as well as inequality with regard to gender and disability, and regionality. Of course, the most pessimistic person has to be the web scraper – so that might be me.

What AI colonialism does is to repeat previous cases of colonialism, but with increasingly blurring forms. This is because it does not take the form of a colonizer planting a flag on some physical piece of land; rather it is the case that we all voluntarily contribute data and think we are “enjoying” its services; moreover, AI is structured in such a way that one cannot avoid participating in a cycle. There are several techniques for blurring. The first one that comes to mind is closing the gap between A and B without a hierarchy. There are also many other strategies, such as creating a larger gap to establish a hierarchy, confidently declaring that A and B are one and the same thing, or pretending that A and B were always the same in the first place. In my last project, the Post-Localization Syndrome, I deepened the premise that both the globalization/internationalization and localization/regionalization contexts started with capital and employed different strategies, but ultimately established a single capital domination structure. Localizing is all about feeding the global context; moreover, the boundaries have been franchised, with the result that we have no idea where they start or end. The binomial capitalism of “make in Korea, sell in the US,” or “technology developed in the US, used in Korea” has largely disappeared in the field of new technologies. Today, goods or technologies developed in one country are filtered through multiple localizations through multiple countries to create a single model of domination. This involves continuous layering in order to arrive at the concept of “global.” This process constitutes the blurring of “globalization,” within which we provide labor as data producers and reinforce the blurring effect of AI.

Now that we have moved beyond franchising to the concretization of franchising, artists working on AI are delving into the layers of this blurring and documenting the strata before they become fossils. Recently, academics have rejected using the Anthropocene as an official epoch. In the event of a concept such as the Artificial Epoch being proposed in the future, perhaps we should start at the bottom of this layer, becoming a “player” and collecting the “fragments.”