Lil’ Miquela, the virtual instagram influencer and self-proclaimed “change-seeking robot with the drip,” is a figure (or site?) of immense and timely intrigue. The CGI avatar came online right before the election of Trump and currently is posting about and commenting on the COVID-19 pandemic with the rest of the world. As the virus continues to force many into uncharted digital territory during quarantine, how to move major parts of life online is a pressing question. But how our tech is being made, and who is profiting from it and in what ways, should also be an area of major concern.
AI is not a cyborg. And Miquela is not even AI. But Donna Harraway’s 1991 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” is a canonical feminist work referenced often by various academics focusing on technology’s ever-transforming impact on society. It is a dense piece of theoretical work and has been used and critiqued for a myriad of purposes since its publication. The manifesto is an apt touchstone for thinking about technologies in the COVID-19 age as it was a result of a historical moment that feels particularly aligned to our current one. David Bell argues that the manifesto was “zeitgeisty” because it was published at a time “when lots of humanities academics were starting to experience computers in their working lives and were starting to feel a bit like cyborgs themselves” (Bell 97). Harraway’s manifesto offers a theoretical lens through which to view Miquela and the company that creates her and aids in producing an analytic that moves beyond simplistic representational politics. Dovetailing this framework is important scholarship on the technology of Lil Miquela through CGI and how she fits into the internet influencer economy more broadly.
Harraway theorized the core of her seminal manifesto during the splintering feminist movement and technological upheaval of the 1980’s. Holding on to tenets of socialist-feminist politics while following theorists like Chela Sandoval in critiquing totalizing identity politics, Harraway articulates the symbol of the cyborg through a methodology of “irony,” or refusing to theorize contradictions “into a larger whole” (5). Through six provocative sections, Harraway identifies technology as a product of “militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” but asks how we can develop a resistant feminist use of tech rather than ineffectively dismissing or demonizing it (7). She then charts how emerging technoscience is and will transform structures of oppression, arguing that work will become increasingly feminized and precarious. Throughout the manifesto, Harraway also calls attention to the material labor of technological production. She concludes with a call to take power in the inevitability of technological advancement, because “the machine is us” (55).
“The Cyborg Manifesto” is very challenging in both content and form. It invites readers to move beyond potential initial understandings of Miquela as problematic or unethical and instead ask how the virtual influencer might be understood, like the cyborg, as “oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence” (9). How can Miquela practice fractured identities when influencer culture is based so heavily on a “brand?” Most importantly, Harraway’s focus on labor and what it means that “machines are eminently portable, mobile- a matter of immense human pain in Detroit and Singapore,” is a key question regarding Miquela (9). Created by Brud, a mysterious LA start-up that is backed by big funders in Silicon Valley, Miquela is not AI or a robot, but a CGI avatar whose speech is written out by the company. Finding out that Miquela does not exist in a physical space and is not creating her own speech is almost disappointing to learn as people who follow and interact with her attempt to figure out her identity. But CGI is an interesting technology in and of itself and it is important to consider the labor that is going behind every one of Miquela’s posts and videos.
In his chapter for the volume Reading Modernism with Machines, scholar Eusong Kim interrogates the representational digital “monster” created by CGI within modern Korean and American cinema and discussed by scholar Joseph Jeon. Although parts of the chapter are beyond the scope of my focus, Kim offers important insight on CGI and its production. Primarily, he builds off the extensive analysis of the fallacy of photography as objective and documental and extends it to CGI. He writes: “Rather than analyzing what we see and recognize, we should read the digital landscape as algorithmic, and therefore often fully contaminated” and that “surface readings of digital objects are not possible” (267, 280). In today’s world many of us are aware of the artificiality of social media, but less aware about how these photoshopping technologies are being produced and what data is being mined from them. To this end, Kim analyses the HBO show John Adams to illustrate the complexity and intensive labor of CGI. He points out how even the “monsters” and completely artificial background extras are composed from human forms, and how the “human” figures themselves are always digitally altered (268). Similar to the racist history of color-correcting in photography, Kim is interested in whose bodies are being used behind CGI and how the form is legislating against all types of human bodies. Miquela, who we are told is Brazilian-American, is not made out of complete internet ether, but is dependent upon a model or images of biracial women who may, but probably are not, profiting off her celebrity. More transparency regarding who exactly is in the boardroom at Brud creating Miquela is critical in answering Kim’s call to make visible militarization and visualization technologies that “often work to remain hidden structurally” and to develop resistant tech techniques a la Harraway (273).
“Communicative Intimacies: Influencers and Perceived Interconnectedness” by Crystal Abidin is the final work I will be using to ground an analysis of Lil Miquela. Unlike Kim’s focus on the technology and labor of CGI, Abidin observes the practices of influencers through a six year ethnographic study on real-life Singaporean influencers. Abidin argues that there are four primary areas in which influencers need to be successful: intimacy (followers feel close to the influencer), accessibility (influencers respond to followers frequently), authenticity (comparable to intimacy, the idea that influencers are showing their “real” selves), and emulable (to what degree followers can relate to the influencers life). This taxonomy is useful in differentiating how Miquela operates online in contrast to her not-completely-virtual peers. Although Miquela does practice a type of disclosive intimacy with her followers, she rarely responds to commentary on her posts and videos. Further, the notion of “authenticity” and “emulable” take on completely new meanings with a CGI avatar. Miquela, and other virtual influencers, also pose an ethical question in regards to advertising as they physically cannot experience or test any of the products they hype. Does the clarity of Miquela as “not real” call attention to the artificiality of real-life influencers and their recommendations? Or does it not matter to human followers, who may be more interested in the idea of AI and robots than what they are selling?
Miquela produces a matrix of pressing questions regarding AI, labor practices, the influencer industry, and celebrity more broadly, that will continue to emerge as technology advances. How can we lead virtual lives with recognition and resistance to big data and the painful materiality of tech production? Despite being a product of Silicon Valley venture capitalists with questionable politics, Miquela may be a provocative place to start thinking about these questions and honor Harraway’s imagination and the possibility of escaping unkind origins.
Abidin, Crystal. “Communicative Intimacies: Influencers and Perceived Interconnectedness.” Ada: Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology, no. 8, 2015, doi:10.7264/NMW2FFG.
Harraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Manifestly Harraway. U of Minnesota P, 2016, pp. 5-90.
Kim, Eusong. “CGI Monstrosities: Modernist Surfaces, the Composite and the Making of the Human Form.” Reading Modernism with Machines, edited by S. Ross & J. O’Sullivan, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, pp. 265-289.