Arabic Glitch
Technoculture, Data Bodies, and Archives
Laila Shereen Sakr



A Posthuman Techno-Feminist Praxis

The glitch is a slipping, a digital banana peel. It is a loss of control. It interrupts the system, revealing the wiring beneath the technology and rendering it vulnerable. It arrives without warning and carries unexpected lessons. I learned this in 2009 when I created a digital archive, R-Shief, to collect, analyze, and visualize social media content. R-Shief would become a repository of multiple social movements from Occupy Wall Street to the 2011 Arab uprisings. In its first years, R-Shief rapidly grew into a complex media system enabling me to collect and analyze data from social networking sites and to innovate machine-learning software. Using its immense data repository, I developed one of the earliest detection algorithms that recognized language from the series of characters in a tweet. The moment was replete with hyperfetishization and celebration of technology. The original 2009 R-Shief dashboard harvested Twitter by hashtag and visualized the tweets in real time on a shared server.1

As the Arab uprisings began in Tunisia in December 2010 and the wave traveled to Egypt a month later, R-Shief’s Twitter-mining software was in full force. On the third day of the Egyptian uprising, January 27, 2011, the software broke the server. It took two days to temporarily migrate R-Shief to a VPN server and from there to a direct server. By March 2011, R-Shief was on a cloud-computing instance that could now sustain its programming. The breakdown, in the midst of revolution, was a fortuitous glitch. It shed light on the critical role of data centers, hardware, and energy usage in processing data and keeping cyberspace alive.

The journey had just begun. After a couple of months on the cloud-computing servers, another glitch slipped into existence. As a graduate student researcher at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, I had worked in a team of developers from IBM to modify their Natural Language Processing2 tools for Arabic. It was June 2011, and revolutionary upheaval had resulted in the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, the interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and national presidential elections in Egypt. R-Shief displayed a visualization with a nearly 100 percent positive sentiment on a candidate named Mortada Mansour. That next month I presented this Arabic sentiment analysis at the American University in Cairo (AUC); the audience burst out in laughter. Mansour was a standing joke in Egypt.3 The Twitter analysis was unable to detect sarcasm. What it interpreted as positive words were undecipherable out of context. There was a glitch. The failure to produce correct sentiment analysis revealed the software’s inability to decipher coded language. It produced unclear measurements and erroneous political commentary. It was a moment of humility in a sea of celebration of the power of the algorithm.

The glitch is a cloud of unknowing—there is no specific ontology, epistemology, or politics. The stories of Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, Palestinian, and other Arab techies, coders, and organizers reveal struggles that are not exceptional, but global and contemporary, residing in the dialectic of the glitch. Programmers, each in their context, shaped new modalities of cultural resistance, rebellion, and revolt. Arabic Glitch offers their stories as an alternative origin point of technological innovation in digital politics. Employing data analytics to analyze tweets, posts, and blogs reveals the promises, and the limits, of digital communication across borders and languages. Programming technology and its logics are not simple vehicles; they influence and shape social movements and realities.

Those new realities make demands on our thinking and practice. The first demand: there is no divide between the virtual and the real. While the “virtual” was once a useful hermeneutics to theorize emergent technologies, it does not capture our lived realities. The virtual and the real are both physically and socially embodied. Data integrates into and shapes our contemporary livelihoods. Data bodies are the collective data records stored about any one body (medical records, social media profiles, school grades, citizenship records) that constitute the individual in the eyes of the record keeper (institutions, governments, states). Only data bodies with certain grades can be admitted into school programs, only data bodies with certain passports can travel, only data bodies with certain credit rankings can secure a loan to buy a house. These data bodies are inextricable from bodies on the ground; together they forge the promises, challenges, and limits of our lived realities.

VJ Um Amel, one of the narrative voices in Arabic Glitch, is a response to this demand of avowing various forms of embodiment. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., I conceived the posthuman cyborg—an Arabic-speaking mother and a video jockey, a VJ. Um is mother in Arabic. Amel is hope. VJ Um Amel is the name I use in art practices that explore the implications of placing “mother” and “cyborg” in local and transnational expressions of “Arab.” Arab, cyborg, mother is a convergence of historical experiences, embodying movement and action as opposed to fixed identities or locations.4 Typically, a cyborg is free from biological, technological, or physical determinism. VJ Um Amel explores what it means when a machine learns and procreates.5 VJ Um Amel and I amassed an archive of social media. The traces that people leave online through posts, tweets, retweeting, and sharing expose various assemblages of people and ideas. They offer alternative geographies of movement and new spatialities of information patterns. The question is not to identify “who” the people are, but how they form networks of joint struggle around the production of knowledge. Tracing these flows of knowledge production and consumption and the glitches that punctuate them in real time reflects the constant flux of our lived present.

What is this glitch and how do we understand it? Some have speculated that it is derived from the Yiddish glitsh, meaning “slippery place.” The word glitch did not exist in English until 1962, when the United States launched its first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury.6 In that context, a glitch was “a spike or change in voltage in an electrical current.”7 Thirty years later a black cat passing a hallway twice embodied the glitch in the now-cult film The Matrix.8 The cat signified an alteration in the programmed reality. When technology does not behave as it should, expressing strange sounds and breaking behavioral patterns, it provokes discomfort, even hostility. The machine is no longer simply an object. It appears suddenly mysterious, a fallible intelligent subject.9 Beyond the general users’ fear of technology, glitches lay bare deep-seated distrust, contempt even, for machines. It takes the same kind of reflective work to confront our reactions to technology as it does to deconstruct any systematic indoctrination.

This takes us to our lived realities’ second demand: one must have procedural literacy10 to identify and understand how data bodies exist, how media systems work, and how glitches intervene. Procedural literacy is understanding how code works—how an algorithm processes sequences of definitions, computations, and executions. From the streets of the Egyptian revolution to the encampments of the Occupy movement, coders and techies transcended the digital divide and attained procedural literacy. They mobilized these tools to reimagine global networks of power.

Globality was at the core of their practices and approaches. As Alaa Abd el-Fattah, an incarcerated Egyptian political activist, writer, and software developer, asserts, digital politics are necessarily transnational.11 For him the Egyptian revolution exceeded nationalist aspirations in its potential for a broader call for freedom and justice. From his visit to Gaza, Palestine,12 to his experience in South Africa,13 to his understanding of the Occupy movement, Alaa, like many coders and techies, understood revolution as collective, transnational, and global. Highlighting the interdependence and connectedness between struggles for freedom across the world, Alaa calls on us from his cell: “fix your own democracy.”14

What if we pose the Arab uprisings as ground zero for imagining this kind of global digital politics? Drawing on stories from Libya, Tunisia, Palestine, and Syria, as well as North America and Europe, Arabic Glitch offers a new map of an Arab techno-global uprising that shaped and informed waves of cyber activism. Through critical analysis of writing and reading Arabic on the Internet, and the material infrastructure that production and circulation entails, we can understand the complexities of live, digital platforms and move within and beyond the Arab revolutionary moment.15

This category “Arab” has a long and dynamic history.16 Using it requires an attention to power, as well as a refusal of conflating geography, religion, subjectivity, and language. Shifting historical agendas have shaped the enterprise of studying, commenting on, or depicting the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa beginning with ancient Greece through the modern period.17 The Second World War brought about a dramatic expansion in area studies in the United States.18 For the U.S. during the Cold War, the category “Middle East” was in need of study for its own national interest—hence the emergence of Middle East studies as a field. The formation of the Middle East and North Africa can also be mapped through colonialism and economic extraction, coded as “development.”19 These codings would in turn influence the relationships between governments and states20 as well as buttressing institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Alongside these colonial trajectories, the category “Arab” has its own history of hegemony and excludes Kurds, Nubians, Armenians, Circassians, Iranians, Druze, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Turks, Yazidis, Azeris, Turkmen, Afghans, Imazighen, and more.

Conscious of these colonial and extractive histories, I follow coders and techies as they explore the limits and potentials of other ways of being, and being Arab. For Arab Americans like myself, this rethinking became politically and socially more urgent than ever in a post-9/11 United States.21 It was the 2011 moment, a full decade later, that the rebels and their data bodies offered so many of us another way to imagine Arab, far from the state-centered trappings of the twentieth century. The uprisings signaled an opening to surpass state and social systems and revel in new solidarities and networks.

Indeed, social media reveals the contestations between governments and hackers. At first glance, the battle appears to be between government and activists, but the fray is deeper and more complex, the actors multiple and constantly shifting. Understanding this broad and dynamic confluence of actors requires a transdisciplinary theory and practice that brings together the humanities, design, and science. Interactive data visualizations such as hashtag (#) analysis, topic modeling using network graphs, and image analysis reveal embodied digital media use. Every data point has an embodied analogue at some prior moment. Moreover, social media have historically and geo-specific genealogies that are inextricable from material bodies. The emerging patterns demonstrate an Arab media scene that was experimental, innovative, and transnational.

Arabic Glitch attempts to proximate one of the scene’s offerings: a model of communal authorship. Centering a “community-author” rather than a single subjectivity, whether expert, popular, or imaginative, reveals the relational infrastructure behind any idea or story. The strength of coauthored ideas relies on the infrastructure of collaborative practices. Community authorship can take multiple forms. It can be groups of people who do not know each other using a singular hashtag and creating a trend, a call to action, a discourse. It can be an intentional collective of individuals who write together under one name. It can be a network of anonymous academics working to “challenge the current norms of evaluating, commodifying, and institutionalizing intellectual labor.”22 In place of the copyright and authority of one agent, community authorship highlights sharing, learning, and exchange.

The logics of measurement and data tempt us to believe that if only we could get the arithmetic or algorithm right, those in power would see scientific reason. There is power and risk in the mathematical models that algorithmically process quotidian life.23 The glitch is a key to challenging our realities and received wisdoms. As in the case of Mansour, measurement alone did not produce accurate findings. Glitches can allow us to challenge and reimagine the metrics that assess the performance and mandates of institutions, governments, and even collaborative ventures. The various expressions of resistance analyzed on these pages experiment with notions of collective power and imaginaries of solidarity. Indeed, the uprisings themselves may have been a glitch.

The decentralized, networked, sometimes autonomous, sometimes collective nature of cultural production requires academic accounts that are themselves decentralized, collaborative, and networked. Challenging the fundamentals of the post and settler colonial, patriarchal, and hypercapitalist present, as Roopika Risam points out, requires decentering the global North and reengaging critical race theory. Reading and decoding the transnational scale of media circulation necessitates a wedding of technology and humanistic inquiry.24 Feminists firmly locate such creative and critical aesthetic engagements in the politics of the contemporary moment, an age marked by the proliferation of new media that have radically reconstituted the character of visual culture and its channels of transmission and circulation. Lauren Klein and Catherine D’Ignazio offer a procedural method that examines and challenges power, elevates emotion and embodiment, rethinks boundaries and hierarchies, embraces pluralism, attends to context, and renders occluded labor visible.25 Arabic Glitch applies this techno-feminist approach to social media and glitch theory.

Glitch theory requires a capacious reading across media studies, visual arts, software studies, Middle East studies, and transnational feminist studies. An exciting body of creative and theoretical works on the glitch emerged in the early aughts and teens of the twenty-first century. Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin’s 2008 study of the semiotics and public reception of glitch in software studies,26 the digital artist Rosa Menkman’s online interventions,27 and Peter Krapp’s media archaeology in computer mediation28 each explored formal and theoretical implications of glitch. At around the same time from the fields of design, architecture, and urban planning, Iman Moradi, Ant Scott, Joe Gilmore, and Christopher Murphy curated a selection of glitch art and interviews.29 Per Platou situated the collection of net art of the 1990s as a form of “resistance toward the slick neo-liberal dotcom-hype that dominated that era.”30 Many works on glitch and noise emerged from the analyses of culture-jamming projects of the late 1990s.31 More recently, Shane Denson invoked digital glitches to theorize the transactions between human and machine that have discorrelated the post-cinematic image.32 Curator and writer Legacy Russell positioned the glitch “as a gerund act” and “an activism that unfolds without end.”33 Similarly, Menkman’s manifesto on the glitch, with its typeface de/ascending diagonally, and its play on kerning and line space, rendered the design behind the layout bare. Alice Dailey posed the glitch as a semiotic sign for thinking about clones and biological reproduction; the reproduction of sovereignty, she argued, hinged on the production of corpses.34

Art critic and curator Laura Marks was the first to theorize, historicize, and curate “Arab glitch” as a category of knowledge production.35 Marks explained image breakdowns and glitches as regular occurrences in contexts where electricity and other media affordances are unreliable and media piracy flourishes.36 Surveying experimental Arab art, she argued that creative and intellectual work from the 1990s through 2014 were a “nahda, or cultural revival.”37 For Marks, the Arab intellectual is acutely aware of the fabrication of political events yet unable to act because of unresponsive and corrupt governments.38 Drawing on digital media and the glitch, Marks argued that the Arab world “constitutes one of the world’s most impressive bodies of experimental cinema.”39

Inspired by these lessons on the glitch as a gerund act that reveals and enriches formal and theoretical structures, Arabic Glitch draws on the authority of my proper name as well as VJ Um Amel’s practices to mine and analyze blogs, social networking sites, Twitter feeds, YouTube, Parler, Facebook, and other new media platforms.40 Through digital archives, software, and installations, live cinema performances, published articles, and in Arabic Glitch, VJ Um Amel and I search for new ways to understand social media and popular uprising.

In the multi-staging of social media on the R-Shief platform, in Beit Um Amel,41 or the Capital Glitch: Arab Cyborg Turns to D.C. exhibition,42 the glitch appears through the slippage of feelings, affects, cultures, and worlds. Remixing and restaging help us understand large bodies of social media as products of both surveillance or sousveillance (a watching from underneath or below). Racialization structures surveillance. Simone Browne puts surveillance into conversation with the archive of transatlantic slavery.43 Safiya Umoja Noble challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities.44 In the twenty-first-century petabyte era, dominant interests continue to identify individual disruptive potentialities through careful tracking of data bodies. The algorithmic apparatus makes such micro-calculative rationality and logic possible.

At the same time, encounters on social media platforms can be sites of rebellions where people want to cohere with their data bodies. This rebellion can stem from a desire to be seen and heard, and for there to be a specific GPS data leaked trail. When interdisciplinary media artist Hasan Elahi was subjected to months of FBI intensive investigation in the aftermath of 9/11, he created “Tracking Transience,”45 a web-based art project of self-tracking that constantly and publicly presents his exact location, activities, and other personal data. In this self-surveillance project, ongoing since 2002, he asserted that providing authorities with information would contain its demand. Through sousveillance, Elahi critiqued state surveillance while providing an ongoing alibi.

There are long histories of sousveillance and data leaking as a way to amplify political voices. Rooted in an Arabic literary tradition, Tarek El-Ariss formulates a theory of an Arab digital consciousness through the practice of fadh—public shaming and scandalizing. He theorizes the leaking subject in the digital age through procedural acts of incivility—hacking (tahkir, iktiraq), leaking (tasrib), revealing (ifsha), proliferation (tafashshi), and exposure and scene-making (fadh). These glitchy acts, socially scripted as uncivil, punishable, and shameful, are the writing and political practices of the present.46 El-Ariss demonstrates how activists mobilized these tropes of civility to scandalize the government during the Arab uprisings. The subject enacting the fadh is taking a risk of being caught as they shed light onto a dark corner. However, for the leaky subject, there is no way out of the social moral code. Like Marks’s reading of the Arab intellectual, in El-Ariss’ account, using codes signals a condition of impossibility under state power.

The relationship between data bodies, politics, and desire is part of a larger performative matrix. They can articulate themselves along a spectrum of political positions and possibilities, much like technology itself. Arabic Glitch resides in the double valence of technology as a site of oppression and struggle. To avow this double edge, to understand how iterative design and procedural process are at work in the reproduction of culture—this is the technological imagination.47 On the one hand, technology is reiterating the past and, on the other hand, it makes innovating a new assemblage possible. In these friction points we experience change and new knowledge. Arabic Glitch offers Arab digital politics as both case study and a global origin and location of oppression, struggle, and resistance.

The glitch dialectic does not escape the surveillance of state, institutional, and corporate hegemony in a knowable way. Its outcome is unforeseeable and messy. And yet, it undermines the fetishizing efficiency, accuracy, and predictability of producers, consumers, and drivers of capital. The glitch is a point of entry for activists, hackers, and artists to resist the free and open-source functionalities that programmers have designed into the system. It brings into view a vast technological apparatus of the state intended to surveil and discipline the population. It is the breaking down and breaking open of a paradigm, an infrastructure, or a system. It is people, in various forms of embodiment, who drive the glitch. People from different backgrounds and political actors, not only survive, but also become more empowered to create change. What happens online has direct impact on our lives. Procedural literacy equips us to avow those possibilities. Thus Arabic Glitch attends to structures of power and surveillance while also centering conditions of possibility.


1. VJ Um Amel, “Twitter Analytics by Hashtag,” Vimeo, February 20, 2011,

2. Natural Language Processing is a field of computer science and linguistics. It is a type of computational method of extracting meaning from unstructured data. Examples include word and sentence tokenization, text classification and sentiment analysis, spelling correction, information extraction, parsing, meaning extraction, and question answering.

3. Lawyer Mortada Mansour ran for presidential election in 2011 but was disqualified by the High Elections Commission over legal questions surrounding the leadership of the Egypt National Party, which nominated him for the presidency. He entered the presidential race again in 2018. Mansour is chairman of the national soccer team, the Zamalek Club. “Mortada Mansour to Run for President,” Mada Masr, April 6, 2014,

4. Nadine Naber, “The Radical Potential of Mothering during the Egyptian Revolution,” Feminist Studies 47, no. 1 (2021): 62–93.

5. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 149–81.

6. “Glitch” entry in American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed. (2000), cites John Glenn.

7. Gene Gurney, Americans into Orbit (New York: Random House, 1962), 151–65.

8. The Matrix, directed by Lana and Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (Warner Bros., 1999).

9. Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin, “Glitch,” in Software Studies: A Lexicon, ed. Matthew Fuller (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 116.

10. See further, Michael Mateas, “Procedural Literacy: Educating the New Media Practitioner,” On the Horizon 13 (2005): 101–11.

11. Alaa Abd el-Fattah, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated: Selected Works 2011–2021 (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021).

12. Abd el-Fattah, 118.

13. Abd el-Fattah, 59.

14. Abd el-Fattah, 312.

15. Fadi A. Bardawil, Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

16. Peter Webb, Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

17. Zachary Lockman, Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism, 2nd ed., The Contemporary Middle East 3 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

18. Lockman, 124.

19. Sherene Seikaly, Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016), 77–102.

20. Robert Vitalis and Steven Heydemann, “War, Keynesianism, and Colonialism: Explaining State-Market Relations in the Postwar Middle East,” in Steven Heydemann, ed., War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 102.

21. Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, and Nadine Naber, eds., Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011). Conceived in the aftermath of 9/11, Arab and Arab-American Feminisms covers the larger political and cultural framework, tracing historic changes in Arab and Muslim organizing in the U.S., especially the impact of 9/11 and the Patriot Act. The editors point to the growing alliance between Arab and African Americans as advocates of anticolonialism and a new world order that challenged white supremacy.

22. Uncertain Commons, Speculate This! (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

23. Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (New York: Crown, 2016).

24. Roopika Risam, New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018), 12.

25. Lauren F. Klein and Catherine D’Ignazio, Data Feminism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020).

26. Goriunova and Shulgin, “Glitch.”

27. Rosa Menkman, “Glitch Studies Manifesto,” online release 2010, republished in Geert Lovink and Rachel Somers Miles, eds., Video Vortex Reader II: Moving Images beyond YouTube (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011).

28. Peter Krapp, Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture, Electronic Mediations, vol. 37 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

29. Iman Moradi et al., Glitch: Designing Imperfection (Brooklyn: Mark Batty, 2009).

30. Per Platou, Foreword to Moradi et al., Glitch: Designing Imperfection, 6.

31. Mark Nunes, Error: Glitch, Noise, and Jam in New Media Cultures (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011).

32. Shane Denson, Discorrelated Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

33. Legacy Russell, “Digital Dualism and the Glitch Feminism Manifesto,” Cyborgology, December 10, 2012.

34. Alice Dailey, How to Do Things with Dead People (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022). Dailey’s book provides an in-depth exploration of King Richard III’s body as a spectacle in Shakespeare’s play, in which she introduces crip theory and queer theory as other vocabularies that function similarly to each other. Crip theory, like disability studies generally, shares the tendency of the glitch to make the exception into something that reveals the norm. In a corporeal turn, Dailey explores the glitch concept in explicitly biological and corporeal terms. She imagines a future populated by the disabled and dead, yet nonetheless, sentient things.

35. Laura Marks, “Arab Glitch,” in Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Visual Practice in the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Anthony Downey (London: I. B. Tauris, 2014), 256–71.

36. Laura Marks, Hanan Al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 250–52.

37. Marks, Hanan Al-Cinema, 9.

38. Marks, Hanan Al-Cinema, 4.

39. Marks, Hanan al-Cinema, 1.

40. Brian Getnick, Alexandra Juhasz, and Laila Shereen Sakr, “Ev-Ent-Anglement: Reflexively Extending Engagement By Way of Technology,” in Bodies of Information: Feminist Debates in Digital Humanities, ed. Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 203–29.

41. Beit Um Amel, solo exhibition by VJ Um Amel, Tahrir Cultural Center, American University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt, February 12–March 11, 2020.

42. Capital Glitch: Arab Cyborg Turns to D.C., by VJ Um Amel, Gallery QI, La Jolla, CA, November 4–December 3, 2021.

43. Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

44. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018).

45. Hasan Elahi, website,

46. Tarek El-Ariss, Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age, Translation/Transnation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).

47. Anne Balsamo, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).