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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Banning TikTok Will Blow Up in US Politicians’ Faces

Leaving aside the various reasons why Trump would want to ban TikTok, which are almost entirely self serving, we need to take a step back and look at how banning an app from China could negatively impact US companies and if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

First, TikTok is a short video app that allows people to make both simple and sophisticated videos. Some are edited to present an entire scene others are just short videos of live action. They can be used for political commentary or just for humor. This isn’t the first App like this, Vine was the original TikTok and was widely popular, but Twitter was unable to monetize it, so they shut it down. Instagram has Instagram Live, Facebook has an app like this too.

However, the big difference between those apps and TikTok is that TikTok may have influenced the Tulsa rally and made Tump look back. The OTHER difference is that it’s owned by a Chinese company. There some fears that this means it will be used by China to collect information on American citizens and shared with the Chinese Government to do something back to our citizens. There’s “fear” that TikTok will influence the election in some fashion and will be, ultimately, influenced by the Chinese government.

To be clear, just about every social media company has to share information with their government. There’s currently an ongoing law suit in the EU about US social media companies and if they properly shield EU data. With that ruling, there are serious question if social media companies can send any data back to the US, since the US government routinely gets access to the data. That the US Government is a huge problem when it comes to social media companies.

Given that the US is looking to ban TikTok for something very much like what the EU just ruled that the US is doing, should give lawmakers pause before banning any other country’s social media platforms. If the US does something like this unilaterally, without going through any third party organization, like the WTO, then other countries may take that the opportunity to do the same for any company from a country they don’t like. If it’s good enough for the US, it’s good enough for us!

Furthermore, this flies in the face of the Neo-liberal economic framework the conservative movement in the US purports to support. Rather than government regulation, they should be pushing for Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, to compete against TikTok and defeat it in the market place. Given that they are instead resorting to regulations, indicates the fact that they are being opportunist here and simply doing this for political reasons. As it is something of a political platform for young people.

Additionally, since there are at least two known cases of Facebook actually influencing elections through external meddling, the US 2016 election and Brexit vote, it is likely that Facebook represents more of a threat to any given government than TikTok. Though, all platforms can be turned into a disinformation platform if enough actors decide it should be turned into a disinformation platform.

It should be viewed as likely that other governments would move to ban US based social media companies and services, like Google and Amazon because of their closeness with the US government. Amazon provides an AWS platform for the CIA and other three letter organizations.

Of course, this might all be moot, because it’s not obvious that the US government can even ban TikTok, as it IS such a huge platform for free speech. Regardless, keep an eye out for other countries taking a lead from the US government after TikTok is banned. It is likely that dictatorships will leap at this chance.

We should not ban TikTok. We should create laws and a framework that requires businesses to strongly protect user data on any social media platform regardless of if it is US based or foreign. We should expect to see more innovation from othe countries over the next few years and that Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft will all experience strong competition.

Corporate Responsibility and Black Lives Matter: Put Money Where Your Hashtags Are

Over the past week I’ve seen a lot of blacked out squares with some semblance of corporate PR speak about honoring diversity and supporting #BlackLivesMatter. Leaders have sent out emails within their organizations explaining how the organization supports the movement and in many cases, this has actually come with some financial donation, like $1,000,000 to NAACP and/or ACLU. These are fantastic gestures. However, they often feel empty. This twitter video really highlights why.

Another reason these gestures feel less than sincere is that the businesses that are coming out and saying these things, often have significant contracts with law enforcement, the Border Patrol, FBI, or national intelligence organizations. For example, Amazon has put out comments around supporting BLM. However, their Ring subsidiary has contracts with at least 400 police organizations nationwide. In fact, they were talking about increasing this and adding facial recognition to the recordings as recently as January.

Furthermore, many companies provide discounts and negotiated rates with local government employees. This, of course, includes police forces. Apple is an example that has Federal, State, and Local Government discounts. We shouldn’t find this surprising, as these organizations have massive buying power together. Companies like Intel also get discounts from the Apple store. However, if Apple is serious about more than just Diversity and Inclusion, Apple should drop discounts for cities and states with high numbers of police brutality cases.

For organizations that really want to make a difference where Black Lives Matter is more than just a hashtag to jump on to show “solidarity,” the ultimate expression of this is through divestment of support for the police. Hold police organizations accountable by removing special treatment. Hold police accountable by cancelling contracts for cloud storage. Hold police accountable by eliminated contracts for facial recognition. Hold police accountable by cancelling IT modernization projects. Hold police accountable by cancelling consulting contracts.

Collectively, define the requirements for restarting engagement. These demands include reduction of police brutalities (ideally as close to zero as possible), elimination of Qualified Immunity (or significant reduction), prosecution of police officers for excessive force, including murder, restructuring of police union contracts to prevent bad cops from being rehired, reintroduction of community policing efforts, introduction of civilian management boards.

These are some ideas provided by the BLM community. I’m ultimately not the right person to be dictating these requirements. Companies that are claiming solidarity should work with Black community leaders to identify the criteria for working with police departments again. Any other than true solidarity through divestment is just more words. Words that may be true, but without action, those words are meaningless. Without forcing the police departments to make change through dropping support, nothing will change. By enabling infrastructure, you’re enabling police brutality.

Below are some more ideas from Killer Mike:

White Americans Need to Understand What White Supremacy Means

I’ve been struggling with what to do in regard to the George Floyd protests, because I’m immunocompromised and can’t physically get involved. How to think about the protests. How to talk about these topics with my friends, mostly white. It’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Something that I plan to write about in my next book (I’m in the process of finishing up a fantasy book and started the sequel). However, for me to do that effectively, I think it’s important for me and for other white Americans to understand American history from a different context.

First of all, we have to acknowledge that most of our education has come from a very white perspective. Furthermore, that perspective has been sanitized by the state you grew up in. Sure, the books might be written for multiple states and now has more federal oversight with Common Core, but that just means that it’s been sanitized even more. That you’re less likely to have views critical to US history presented in high school. It’s why College history courses will seem so shockingly radical to a lot of people, because historians are expected to present multiple views to help build critical thinking in the next generation of historians.

So, we, white Americans, need to do the hard work of educating ourselves. If we want to meaningfully add to the conversation or really understand what we should do, we need to take a hard look at what it means to be a White American. We need to understand what it means when African American thinkers talk about White Supremacy. We need to talk about how we benefit from the US’s power structure.

This morning I was watching a video on fictional and Fantasy writing world building. The video referenced a paper by Dr. Abraham V. Thomas, called “Is there a Caste System in India?” the author compared the US and India and argued that both India and the US have Caste systems. Caste systems, if you aren’t aware, are a “philosophical” or “morally” driven hierarchy to society. That there’s a reason why one group of people should be on the top of society while others should be beneath them. In some cases, like in India’s historic Caste system, this means there “Untouchables” which are only good for cleaning sewage (and a few other tasks). In the US, the historic philosophy is one of superiority of the White Race over the Black Race. Which was the philosophical underpinning for slavery.

I think this is an important way of framing how you think about these race discussions. If you read a tweet that talks about how white Americans benefit from White Supremacy, this is what they are saying. You’re in the top Caste because you are White. You may not literally be a White Supremacist, but you are benefiting from the history of White Supremacy in this country.

This was a hard thing for me to understand. Because I would read tweets by activists like Bree Newsome it’d be difficult to square who I thought I was and how I’ve worked to get where I am with what she was saying. I’d get upset. “I’d say, I’m not that person. I didn’t benefit from that! I hate it!” However, before engaging, I remembered a tweet I saw from a Physicist and Historian of Race in Science Technology and Mathematics, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein who begged that White people need to listen before talking. So, I’ve really focused on listening to what women like Chanda and Bree are saying rather than engaging.

Through listening, I’ve really learned that I was too ignorant to have a meaningful engagement with either of them over Twitter. That they and other activists like @Negrosubversive (I don’t know his name) are speaking of their lived experience and how they are experiencing the world. Simply because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean that I have the right to negate it because i don’t think their experiences directly apply to my life.

When people are asking about, how should I talk to my kids about what’s happening right now? Well, I think the first step is to get more educated. Follow on Twitter activists. Read books written by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) historians. Read literature. Learn the context so you can inform your kid correctly.

After reading portions of the 1619 Project, which does have some flaws (according to some Historians), I went on to read An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, I recently ordered Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and White Rage By Carol Anderson. When they come in, I’ll write book reviews about them.

It’s our responsibility to get educated so we can help break down our system so we can have a more Just and equitable society. Will it be painful for white America? Yes. Will we be better for it? Yes. So, start by getting educated. Learn and Listen. Only then, can we really engage.