Book Review: Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book builds on the research in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism and Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, so I definitely recommend reading those two books first. I’m not alone in that, in one of the talks I’ve watched Benjamin give, she explicitly mentions those books as influencing her. I really enjoyed this book, it brought together ideas from my own master’s degree, including the complexity of how technology is used. In one class we specifically discussed the Moses’s bridges in New York (despite this being taught in the Netherlands), which were designed to exclude the poor by preventing buses from crossing the bridge. In this book she discusses this bridge and how it can pull in the very people that were expected to benefit the bridge design (basically a bus full of rich white kids went across after they came back from a trip to Europe, the driver hit the top of the bridge which resulted in 6 people getting seriously injured).

She modernizes these examples by describing how algorithms are created to approximate details about people, such as determining their ethnicity to provide “targeted services.” Due to historical redlining, the practice of creating white people only enclaves in suburbs and portions of the city (a Jim Crow era set of laws), the zip code has become a reliable indicator of ethnicity and race. She gives the example of Diversity, Inc., which creates ethnicity or racial classifications for potentially hiring companies. They will look at the names of people and assess their ethnicity, however due to the history of slavery, many African Americans have white sounding surnames, like Sarah Johnson, to “correctly” identify the ethnicity of Sarah, the company uses her zipcode to assign her race.

Overall, I found a lot of examples in this book very illuminating. Benjamin finds the approach to Design favored in Silicon Valley wanting and excluding, primarily focused on empathizing for making money, which in many cases is empathizing with whiteness. Furthermore, Benjamin argues that empathy can lead skewed results, such as body camera video providing empathy for police officers even when they are killing Black people for crimes which aren’t capital offenses or no crime at all.

As an engineer, I took this book as a warning. That we need to understand how data is impacting those around us. That we need to understand how data that might seem harmless to me, could cause serious harm to someone else. That algorithms that seem to be doing good, could instead be quickly turned into something bad. Facial recognition is a great example. Facebook tags people in photos without consent and this can be exploited by law enforcement. Furthermore, since facial recognition software is so inaccurate, it can misclassify a person as the wrong sex, the wrong person, or in extremely bad past cases, as an animal.

Furthermore, engineers have the responsibility to ensure our work is used to create more equity in the world. Benjamin offers a few different organizations that are working to ensure justice and equity for everyone. Maybe it’s time that software engineers/developers have a responsibility for this the same way a civil engineer must ensure a bridge is safe.

I recommend that anyone that works at a social media company read this. Anyone doing work for algorithms in banks, insurance, hiring, and housing really understand the fact that algorithms aren’t objective. They are as objective as our history. Our history hasn’t been objective nor equitable. We must change that.



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Book Review: Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I wish the people that created the Netflix Documentary The Social Dilemma had read this book, I believe it would have provided a great deal of context around surveillance. Through the context of reading about race, I’ve learned a lot about American history that I regret not knowing earlier in my life. This is one of those books that does multiple things at once. First, it teaches about Black history in general, not just Black people in America, but in Africa as well. Second, it teaches about the history of prisons and the very first prison the Panopticon. Third, it discusses Surveillance and surveillance technologies.

It doesn’t teach these as separate threads, though. It’s impossible to teach these topics separately. Even when reading White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, small parts of these topics were brought up. In Between the World and Me, these same ideas were brought up, just a shorter time horizon for the history.

The United States created law after law, mechanism after mechanism, to surveil Black people. According to Browne, this as soon as an African was captured, they’d be branded, sorted, and documented. Then they’d be surveiled in the slave ship, which was a truly horrific environment.

There was something about how Browne described the slave ship that hit home a lot harder than when I’d seen the ships before. Maybe it’s the Pandemic, maybe it’s my own allergies, maybe it’s understanding that they were locked in this miserable condition for 67 days!

Speaking of the pandemic, the right-wing out bursts against wearing masks is laughable considering some of the laws we implemented in the past to protect white people from Black people. There were laws in New York City, called Lantern Laws where any Black person had to have a lantern lit at anytime after dark. They weren’t allowed to be in groups larger than three people and had to have a candle lit at all times. If they didn’t, they could get 40 lashings (apparently it was reduced later to 15). 40 Lashings could certainly kill someone.

Ultimately, the book moves from the history of surveillance to present day, which draws a pretty straight line to what we experience now at the airport after 9/11. However, in the airport Black and brown people experience significantly more surveillance than white people. This can lead to ridiculous things like having an afro searched for bomb materials and statistically higher search rates for Black Woman than white women even though statistically white women are more likely to have contraband. Further, this extends to accepting Black people as citizens, as given in an example with a Canadian woman.

I believe this book is critical in understanding our Government’s response to the BLM movement, the obsessions with Antifa, avoidance of investigating right-wing terrorism, and our current surveillance state. I think anyone that’s working in the social media space or adtech space, should read this book. If you care about ethical technology, you need to read this book. Because if we understand this and address the problems outlined in this book, we address surveillance issues for everyone.



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Book Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since the Michael Brown protests in Ferguson in 2014, I have been actively working to listen and learn from Black activists and thought leaders. However, I didn’t do much reading beyond Twitter, The Root, and some articles the activists would post. While I feel like I’m in a much better position now, for these protests, to discuss with white Americans the reasons for the protests, I feel like I have so much to learn. I’m glad I went through learning from those activists first, because it was hard to learn to listen. I wanted to rage against what they were saying, because it didn’t apply to ME. I had to learn to listen, which is what really allowed me to listen to what Ta-Nehisi Coates said in this fantastic book.

Growing up in an absurdly white part of Western Pennsylvania, where there was one black family, one Indian family, and one Asian family, prevented me being aware of much of anything. Hell, I really did not understand why Rage Against the Machine said “Some of those that work forces are the ones that burns crosses” why there was so much anger against police.

During the Michael Brown protests I wrote that the police shouldn’t be militarized from more of an objective standpoint because it limited first amendment rights in general. That no American protester should ever be targeted the way they were targeted. This book, helped provide a lot of the context that I didn’t understand for why police would want to militarize. I didn’t understand it was to really control the Body of the Black person.

This book will make you cry. I had tears in my eyes throughout nearly the entire book. It’s a moving letter from father to son explaining the horrors he had experienced. Horrors that Coates had tried to shield his son from, but knew he could never and should never fully shield him from them all. There is just simply too much weight on the shoulders of Black Americans to behave a certain way to prevent White people from weaponizing their whiteness against the Black person.

Amy Cooper Weaponized her Whiteness against a Black birder in a horrific and absurd way. However, Coates explains, this event isn’t ahistorical, it is our national heritage. It is the cost of the “American Dream.” The Dream was build upon Black bodies. First as slaves and then as an underclass, an undercaste, to be separated into a red lined portion of the town. That should be destroyed if they accumulate too much wealth.

Coates has similar feelings as I do about a god and how that means life is even more precious. This life is the only one that we have. That we can and should do the most we can with this life. That this worldview makes the wanton destruction of Black bodies even more horrific, because there’s no afterlife where a lifelong struggle is rewarded. It makes enslaving an entire people for centuries even more horrific.

Coates rejects arguments such as black on black violence as a reminder that the white Dreamers used the state to segregate the Black community through both actions of the state and complicit realtors and other White community members.

This book, at the end, calls out that it’s not the Black person that can resolve the current crisis of their body’s safety. It’s the White Dreamer that must awaken from the dream. To realize this world isn’t for us either, that our bodies can be as easily destroyed as a Black body, if the state decides to do so. I believe this is true. This book has helped me make arguments to my white friends, to argue we need to understand the history of the formerly enslaved or the Black people negatively impacted by racists practices that sprang from enslaving Black people.

If you are White and interested in justice you must read this book. You will cry. You will begin to empathize with our Black citizens. It’s a first step, we need to push for change and justice.

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Book Review: Managing the Unmanageable

Managing the Unmanageable: Rules, Tools, and Insights for Managing Software People and TeamsManaging the Unmanageable: Rules, Tools, and Insights for Managing Software People and Teams by Mickey W. Mantle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are new to managing a team this is a must read for you. While the book is intended for managers of programmers (developers, software engineers, etc…) I believe this book applies to just about any sort of creative. Obviously, some sections will be less applicable to architects like the agile sections, but in general, creatives are creatives. The authors, to some extent, recognize this by continually comparing software developers to musicians. Arguing, in fact, that the best programmers are typically fantastic musicians. There’s a similarity in the way the brain works between musicians and developers. I think this applies to other artists as well, especially ones that under went rigorous training to be an artist. There are processes you need to follow to enact your vision.

Anyway, the book itself offers very candid advice on everything hiring, firing, building local and remote teams, coaching, rewarding, and having fun.

The authors argue that hiring is the most important job of any manager. I think this is true from my experience interviewing people and managing people. Whenever you hire someone the work environment shifts. So you need to make sure that whatever change the person brings is a net positive for the team. To ensure that you get the right combination of fit and skill you must have a rigorous process for finding potential candidates, screening candidates, and interviewing candidates. If you do not you will pay for it later by losing your best people or being required to fire that hire in the future for lack of performance.

All this and templates are laid out in the book. The tools and rules of thumb are fantastic for first time managers and managers that have struggled to hire the right team.

The authors argue the most important functions of a manager are Hiring/Firing, Coaching, Developing individuals and teams. I think this is right. The manager should be technical enough to help with the team as needed, but shouldn’t be expected to roll up their sleeves too much. Their skill is more important in investigating logical approaches than the specifics of coding. However, there are a lot of people that believe their manager should be able to do their job. Which i think has a lot of merit.

This book also has some great ideas of how to convert traditional managers into agile managers. Ironically, if you follow their advice through most of the book, you’ll be well positioned to be an excelled agile manager positions to remove impediments.

I highly recommend this book for any one managing programmers, engineers, or creatives in general.

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Book Review: Why So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?: (And How to Fix It)Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?: by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book does a fantastic job outlining all the ways men fail as leaders. Let me back up. This book isn’t a man hating book. Its goal is to ensure better leadership at any company. The way to do this, isn’t to just promote women, any woman. The way to do this, is to scrutinize everyone the way that women are scrutinized. Because, the data, and this book brings receipts, shows that women are better leaders.

So why are women better leaders? Well, in general women are less narcissistic in fact men are 30% more likely to be a narcissist than women. Second, men are more likely to be psychopaths, about 50% more likely, in fact. Furthermore, while in the general population about 1% of people are psychopaths, 1 in 5! Senior leaders are psychopaths and 1 in 3! Are narcissists.

Most of this book goes on to outline the failings of male leadership, because of the ways that narcissists are horrible leaders. Similarly for psychopaths. The more interesting part, though, is where the author talks about the benefits of women leadership and how that is associated with higher EQ (emotional intelligence). Both narcissists and psychopaths have very low EQ which results in poorer performance. What the author argues for, are leaders with high IQ and EQ. Women are more likely to have higher EQ than men (by about 20%). There are no significant differences between the genders for IQ, which means on the whole women are better for leadership roles because of their higher EQ.

There are a lot of reasons why we don’t pick for high EQ and one of those reasons is “confidence” really perceived confidence. Another is charisma, where male charisma is desirable and often female charisma is ignored or misunderstood.

The book, sadly, doesn’t offer as much in the way of how to fix it as it claims in the title. There are a few sections. First ask questions that can identify if someone is a narcissist. Ask questions to figure out if someone is a psychopath. Then don’t hire them. The other major innovation the book offers is using structured scored interview questions. This will create a mechanism to compare apples to apples rather than wildly different interview questions.

So, I’m disappointed on the “how to fix it” portion. Hopefully the author will include a section at the end with specific links to questions. I know there are reference and end notes, but putting together a rubric that can more easily be applied would be a great way to improve this and allow people to really see what Manpower uses to fix this problem.

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