Thedas Studies #1: Is Thedas A Settler Colonized Continent?

[This article contains MASSIVE spoilers for the entire Dragon Age series]

I’m one of the Dragon Age players that spent as much time in the Codex reading the well written lore around the in-game world as I did actually playing the game. I’m also a sociologist who studies settler colonialism and urban racial inequality so of course I decided to nerd out by applying my sociological training to studying the world of Thedas during the Dragon Age. So this post is the first in a series I’m calling “Thedas Studies”. So let’s get into it!

For this first post I wanted to deal with the fundamental issue of whether Thedas is a settler colonized continent or not. I think this is an important question to ask because defining what the basic reality of this world is informs how we as people engage with everything else happening within it. For example when we define a society as a “democracy” vs a “dictatorship” we interact with social problems within them, such as police brutality, very differently. This difference in framing social problems can include  ignoring them completely as onlookers and analysts. I will argue below that Thedas is a settler colonized continent and that our analyses of the game world, human/elven relations, needs to be understood within this context.

So what is settler colonialism and how do we recognize it’s existence? Settler colonialism is a form of colonization where the invading regime/population seeks to build a civilization on conquered land vs simply extracting resources and/or ruling over the indigenous population. Settler colonialism is almost by definition always genocidal in nature, where the invaders seeks to eradicate the indigenous population physically, culturally, and genetically from the land so their own descendents can take up permanent residence. In the real world examples of settler colonies include the entirety of the western hemisphere including the US, New Zealand, Australia, and other nations. All of these nations engage in a pattern of eradication/slavery, asserting sovereignty over the land, and in most cases attempting to erase the act of conquest itself and trying to naturalize their presence upon indigenous land.

Looking back to Thedas we clear evidence of at least the replacement of an indigenous population with a foreign one. Dalish oral histories, accounts gathered by the Inquisitor while he explored The Crossroads, and first hand accounts given to the Inquisitor by Solas/Fen’Harel all state that the original inhabitants of Thedas (at least above ground) was the Elves and their civilization of Elvhenan. After Solas attempted to free Elves from the rule of the Gods by creating the Veil, the whole civilization was thrown into chaos with massive losses of life. Some time after the creation of the Veil humans showed up in Thedas, perhaps from Par Vollen or some other unknown place. As elves and humans came into contact elves realized that their immortality beginning to disappear and thus withdrew from contact with humans. Over the next thousand or so years, human tribes grew and took land from elves, enslaving those they captured. Humanity’s rise in power and land base coalesced into the Tevinter Imperium. From that point Tevinter conquered the rest of elven held territory and enslaved the entire species. In this way it is clear that humans engaged in a protracted settler colonial campaign of extermination and enslavement. So on a basic level, Thedas at least under the Imperium was indeed settler colonized.

Some complications come up tho. Abelas for example argues that elven civilization already ended before the humans took over, denying that they conquered anything/anybody really. But I suspect that like Solas, Abelas doesn’t really see modern elves without their Fade enhanced existence as ‘real’ elves and therefore “his people” already died off before Tevinter showed up. There’s also the issue of the Dales, which was given to Elves by Andraste for their assistance in overthrowing the Imperium. The Dales was a sovereign kingdom that was eventually conquered and annexed into Orlais. Does the existence of the Dales= decolonization? What about the rest of the continent that never went back into elven hands? I would argue that decolonization is never complete until the entire settler regime, and in the case of Thedas, its successor states (Ferelden or Antiva etc) are all dismantled. As far as ancient elves like Solas is concerned, none of Thedas rightfully belong to humans or Qunari for that fact. Not to mention that since the Dales got reconquered by Orlais, elves were again fully settler colonized having no sovereign territory of their own (alienages damn sure don’t count lol).

Aside from the land grabs we also see cultural genocide with humans forcing the Chant onto elves, destruction of elven artifacts and structures, as well as a writing of history that denies the pre-contact elven presence on the land. Cultural genocide also includes cultural appropriation and theft. Archon Thalsian, first human blood mage and creator of the Old Gods religion, was argued to be taught blood magic by elves. He then used this power to destroy the elven civilization. He and other Tevinter magisters tried to pass this power off as being gifted to them by the Old Gods when it was the people they enslaved who taught it to them. It stands to speculate how many more spells, technology, and artifacts humans expropriated from elves while enslaving them and denying them access to that same knowledge/resource.

Resistance to settler colonialism in Thedas abounds. There’s the Dalish who engaged in grand marronage, refusing to allow themselves to fall under human authority. They practice what aspects of their culture they could reimagine, recover, retain after over 1000 years of slavery. Although they are the most extreme/obvious example of elven resistance, there are other smaller forms of elven resistance within human society. For example there’s the Halamshiral uprising that occurred in 9:40 Dragon. Connected to that uprising is Briala’s, Empress Celene’s spymaster, group of elven spies who actively engage in subterfuge against human interests. There are also regular uprisings in alienages across Thedas because of poor starvation conditions human rulers keep them under. Lastly there’s Solas’s efforts to undo the Veil which will necessarily kill most of the people in Thedas and presumably lead to elves gaining back their powers/immortality.

Things that I didn’t address above but will in subsequent pieces were elf-blooded folks (human-elven children) and how they fit into the settler regime, the layered relationship of Orlais colonizing their neighbors/ Ferelden nationalism in light of them all being on stolen elven land, the desire of the Qunari to settler colonized Thedas for themselves, as well as how claims to land are complicated by Dwarves and their presences under Thedas. I would also like to address the complications of even the claim to a place called Thedas considering that before the Veil the entire dimension and geometry of the world was radically different to the point where one could question whether “Thedas” was even a thing then (similar Abelas’ issue with calling modern elves “elves” even though they are missing their ingrain magic abilities).

Overall the continent is in a state of unrest and depending on world state there have been elves named Hero of Ferelden and Inquisitor respectively upsetting the taken for granted social positioning of elves. With many elves moving to follow Solas, and the ongoing rebellions in places like Denerim, and the uncovering of large fragments of elven history over the course of the Dragon Age, I’m sure calls for elven sovereignty or more engagement in petite/grand marronnage will be seen in Thedas.

Against Black Inclusion in Facial Recognition

By Nabil Hassein

Researchers have documented the frequent inability of facial recognition software to detect Black people’s faces due to programmers’ use of unrepresentative data to train machine learning models.1 This issue is not unique, but systemic; in a related example, automated passport photo validation has registered Asian people’s open eyes as being closed.2 Such technological biases have precedents in mediums older than software. For example, color photography was initially optimized for lighter skin tones at the expense of people with darker skin, a bias corrected mainly due to the efforts and funding of furniture manufacturers and chocolate sellers to render darker tones more easily visible in photographs — the better to sell their products.3 Groups such as the Algorithmic Justice League have made it their mission to “highlight algorithmic bias” and “develop practices for accountability during the design, development, and deployment of coded systems”.4 I support all of those goals abstractly, but at a concrete level, I question whose interests would truly be served by the deployment of automated systems capable of reliably identifying Black people.

As a longtime programmer, I know first-hand that software can be an unwelcoming medium for Black folks, not only because of racism among programmers, but also because of biases built into code, which programmers can hardly avoid as no other foundations exist to build on. It’s easy for me to understand a desire to rid software of these biases. Just last month, I wrote up a sketch of a proposal to decolonize the Pronouncing software library5 I used in a simple art project to generate rhymes modeled on those of my favorite rapper.6 So I empathized when I heard Joy Buolamwini of the Algorithmic Justice League speak on wearing a white mask to get her own highly imaginative “Aspire Mirror” project involving facial recognition to perceive her existence.7 Modern technology has rendered literal Frantz Fanon’s metaphor of “Black Skin, White Masks”.8

Facial recognition has diverse applications, but as a police and prison abolitionist, the enhancement of state-controlled surveillance cameras (including police body cameras) to automatically identify people looms much larger in my mind than any other use.9 Researchers at Georgetown University found that fully half of American adults, or over 100 million people, are registered in one or another law enforcement facial recognition database, drawing from sources such as driver’s license photos.10 Baltimore Police used the technology to identify participants in the uprising following the murder of Freddie Gray.11 The US government plans to use facial recognition to identify every airline passenger exiting the United States.12 Machine learning researchers have even reinvented the racist pseudoscience of physiognomy, in a study claiming to identify criminals with approximately 90% accuracy based on their faces alone — using data provided by police.13

I consider it obvious that most if not all data collected by police to serve their inherently racist mission will be severely biased. It is equally clear to me that no technology under police control will be used to hold police accountable or to benefit Black folks or other oppressed people. Even restricting our attention to machine learning in the so-called “justice” system, examples abound of technology used to harm us, such as racist predictive models used by the courts to determine bail and sentencing decisions — matters of freedom and captivity, life and death.14 Accordingly, I have no reason to support the development or deployment of technology which makes it easier for the state to recognize and surveil members of my community. Just the opposite: by refusing to don white masks, we may be able to gain some temporary advantages by partially obscuring ourselves from the eyes of the white supremacist state. The reality for the foreseeable future is that the people who control and deploy facial recognition technology at any consequential scale will predominantly be our oppressors. Why should we desire our faces to be legible for efficient automated processing by systems of their design? We could demand instead that police be forbidden to use such unreliable surveillance technologies. Anti-racist technologists could engage in high-tech direct action by using the limited resources at our disposal to further develop extant techniques for tricking machine learning models into misclassifications,15 or distributing anti-surveillance hardware such as glasses designed to obscure the wearer’s face from cameras.16

This analysis clearly contradicts advocacy of “diversity and inclusion” as the universal or even typical response to bias. Among the political class, “Black faces in high places” have utterly failed to produce gains for the Black masses.17 Similarly, Black cops have shown themselves just as likely as white cops to engage in racist brutality and murder.18 Why should the inclusion of Black folks in facial recognition, or for that matter, the racist technology industry be different? Systemic oppression cannot be addressed by a change in the complexion of the oppressor, as though a rainbow 1% and more white people crowding the prisons would mean justice. That’s not the world I want to live in. We must imagine and build a future of real freedom.

All of the arguments I’ve presented could be (and have been) applied to many domains beyond facial recognition. I continue to grapple with what that means for my own work as a technologist and a political organizer, but I am firm already in at least two conclusions. The first is that despite every disadvantage, we must reappropriate oppressive technology for emancipatory purposes. The second is that the liberation of Black folks and all oppressed peoples will never be achieved by inclusion in systems controlled by a capitalist elite which benefits from the perpetuation of racism and related oppressions. It can only be achieved by the destruction of those systems, and the construction of new technologies designed, developed, and deployed by our own communities for our own benefit. The struggle for liberation is not a struggle for diversity and inclusion — it is a struggle for decolonization, reparations, and self-determination. We can realize those aspirations only in a socialist world.

Nabil Hassein is a software developer and organizer based in Brooklyn, NY.

  8. Frantz Fanon: “Black Skin, White Masks”.↩
  17. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation”, Chapter 3, “Black Faces in High Places”.↩