The Seventh Sense: A Black Feminist Perspective

What is true for the machines all around us now is true for us too: We are what we are connected to. - Joshua Cooper Ramo

In The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks, Joshua Cooper Ramo describes the necessity for "sensing" connections in a digitally-connected age. Being able to sense connections, he argues, creates dynamic networks that expand and reach. The ability to create technology that connects people, places, and things - and the ability to use this technology - makes modern-day power, fortune, and survival possible.

What I appreciate about The Seventh Sense is its exploration of technology as a tool for connection. Ramo also offers a range of examples, though many are located in the "West" and involve top-down state power. In key respects, the book consistently supports current geographies of power. Ramo briefly critiques the lack of racial and gender diversity in the tech industry. But ultimately what he calls the "new caste" is  familiar: predominantly white, predominantly male, and wealthy in social capital (if not financial capital). The new caste deftly manages a seventh sense.

Ramo emphasizes how rapid connectivity, the pace of networks, and their expansive reach are new. But from the perspective of diversity, inclusion, and equity, not much has changed in his vision of the future. 

And this is what concerns me. Yes, hierarchy persists - and so does the possibility of social change, healing, and resistance. I'm inspired by a future where networks don't perpetuate "business as usual". I'm inspired by efforts that recognize possibilities in the present and reimagine the future. 

Some Thoughts from a Black Feminist Perspective

As a geographer, a Black feminist lens helps me reimagine space, place, and time - all key themes in Ramo's discussion of networks. Each of these is compressed from the perspective of The Seventh Sense. As a lens, Black feminism bears witness to phenomena from the ground up and from the margins. And though Black feminism is perhaps most famous for intersectionality that takes into account race, gender, class, among other identities, it is also a body of thought that devotes deep attention to networks of survival. 

From the perspective of food, I’m especially  thinking of community-based networks that involve sharing, eating, and making meals. Patricia Hill Collins writes of othermothering, or the practice of Black women taking care of and nourishing other people's children in communities. Psyche Williams Forson writes about Ghanian food networks in the United States and how they sustain cultural sustenance, along with politics of authenticity. Mothers and grandmothers I've interviewed cook meals for their families as well as for an extended network of barbershops, salons, churches, and neighbors.

Contemporary social movements like Black Lives Matter demonstrate a seventh sense: BLM’s use of digital activism has sparked action throughout the country and around the world. The Black feminist foundation of BLM emphasizes network building that’s grounded in everyday relationship with one's self and others (see for instance this piece). 

The networks I’ve named here can be close to the ground and deeply local. Their “nodes”, as Ramo might call them, are often socially- and culturally-grounded. They unfold in context, informed by broader, historical patterns of privilege and oppression. Some exist intentionally “underground”: to be witnessed might subject them to surveillance. Or compromise lives.  Sometimes their reach is singular and place-based, rather than wide and multi-sited. Some have gone digital, while others have not. Still others don't have access to "the web". Their network reach may not be broad in the sense of reaching across place or connecting thousands of people. No matter their extent, the networks matter. They have the potential to materially sustain lives and livelihoods.

In certain respects these networks resonate with what Ramo describes: they have "gatelands" and nodes, gatekeepers and insiders. In other respects, I wonder how they can reframe “power” and “fortune” per usual. Throughout The Seventh Sense, power is top-down. Though Ramo suggests the democratization of power via technology, his discussion of “the new caste” ultimately renders power hierarchical. And to accumulate a fortune is to have more power.

A black feminist reading of networks invites attention to how power can be shared, negotiated, and exercised no matter the social location of the individuals or the community. Power emerges as dynamic. Fortune emerges as more than currency.

5 Questions

Read through a Black feminist lens, The Seventh Sense inspires these questions: 

1) How does thinking through a Black feminist lens highlights how Black and other historically-marginalized (resilient) communities enact networks at grassroots to global levels?

2) How would learning from grassroots and community-based networks, shift “business as usual”?

3) What is the power of underground networks for social change? How are technologies like Signal and VPN enabling social movements or other networks for survival?

4) Who can comfortably network "above ground", and who can not? What movements can move "above ground" with ease, and which can not? In other words, how does social location matter?

5) And, how do virtual networks (still) require or involve on-the-ground connection?

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