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: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson – A guide for finding the right values to give a fuck about the right things

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeThe Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I actually first heard of this book while I was reading an article about Millennial Burnout. The author of that article knocked this book, which now I realize that author clearly hadn’t read this book! I think this book is completely misnamed, because this book isn’t about ‘Not Giving a Fuck’ it’s really about ‘Giving a fuck about the right things.’ I think this is an important distinction and one that, if you judge the book by its cover, you’ll definitely miss.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on depression. I’ve read 1 book written by a layman that covers a great deal of different research on depression, Lost Connections. I’ve read another book that deals with Trauma and how that can cause depression, The Body Keeps the Score. Finally, I’ve read a book on the science of love and how unhealthy relationships while growing up and as adults can cause depression, General Theory of Love. I believe that I can add this as a fourth book to this list. In Lost Connections the author argues that a major cause of depression in our lives is a misalignment with our core values and the values of society. I believe that this book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, is an entire book about that.

The author’s premise is that we are valuing, and thus giving a fuck about, the wrong things. That could be chasing material items, women (the author himself is a self confessed womanizer), a bigger paycheck, a new job that will solve all their problems, and other things. We are chasing these things, because this is what we’ve been taught to value through our friends and families.

However, these things do not make you happy. Solving the right types of problems can make you happy. Those problems that you solve are what you value. Seeking them out can help make you happy. The pain and struggle of solving those problems lead to happiness.

This rings true to me. I’m struggling with work and finding balance and happiness with my life. I’ve had great success in my work and have made significantly more money since entering the job market. However, I am not less depressed. If anything my depression deepened. As a result, I feel like I’m flailing.

This book helped me put into context a lot of different ideas that I had read in the other three books. In a way it synthesized those ideas into something that was more actionable. In some ways, the action is to do something, anything. But start by putting one step forward. Try something small and take responsibility of that.

Responsibility is a key theme in this book. You take responsibility to how you respond to anything that happens to you. This isn’t to say it’s your fault this thing happened. For example, if you get sick, that is not your fault. How you deal with being sick is your responsibility. If someone treats you like shit at work, that’s not your fault, but how you respond to them is your responsibility. If you set boundaries and make it clear that behavior is unacceptable and act professional, you can start to change that relationship. If you retaliate and escalate things, you are responsible for that. Even if the person, really pissed you off.

I think this book is also important given the conversation around Toxic Masculinity. Toxic Masculinity is all about entitlement. This book argues that entitlement is one of the major reasons why people are unhappy. It leads to shitty values that make you a shitty person. If you are pissed off that people don’t like toxic masculinity, it’s because you’re concerned some of your behavior may be construed as toxic. You’re responsible for that response. You’re responsible for inspecting your values and your behavior to understand if you are a toxic person. If you find yourself wanting, then it is your responsibility to change and improve yourself. You can. This book helps provide a roadmap for it.

This book isn’t perfect, of course. The author definitely leans into the title during the beginning of the book, which can get old. There are other places where the author does this as well, because it seems to fit. However, if you are able to get past that bit of childish fun to get into the meat of the book, it’s well worth it.

I would strongly suggest that if you find this book interesting to read the other books about depression I suggested above. These together can help you work through your depression, if you are also depressed.

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Review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle #6)The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was completely unaware that this was the 6th book of a series. I don’t think that really hurt my understanding of the expertly crafted world. This book explores, race, the sexes, sexuality, and the meaning of being human. Int his universe there are a number of worlds where humans live, at least 84, there could be more, but we only know of 83, plus the planet of Winter, where the story takes place.

The world is interesting for two main reasons. First, it takes place on a planet that has been in an iceage for millennia. Second, humans don’t have the two obvious genders, male and female. The humans on this planet are able to, and do, switch between the two during their “kemmering” whichis the ONLY time there are any sexes on the planet. In fact, the rest of the time they are essentially eunuchs. Technically having both male and female sex organs at this point. The book is interesting, because it’s a study of what life could be like without the duality of male/female. These discussions are important in this day and age, given importance of Trans rights in the political discourse and the general transphobia in parts of the polity (I literally looked at my twitter feed and the ACLU had just posted an article about a trans girl in Texas).

The book is, generally, written from the perspective of an Earth human, a young black man named Genly Ai. Which allows us to feel very connected to this book. The character struggles with handling the lack of duality and continually assigns maleness or femaleness to characters. He often gets them very wrong, especially in the case of his “Landlady.” Who looks more feminine to Genly Ai than many of the other humans on this planet. However, whenever he asked, he learned that the Landlady had never had any children of the flesh but had many children overall (essentially meaning the Landlady had never gotten pregnant but had gotten a number of other people pregnant).

Aside from the obvious relevance of the topic related to Trans rights, the book looks at how politics can change when a leader changes. How a peaceful country that has never known war, can create an otherness out of their neighbor and begin down the path of war. You can see through the action of people the impact of rhetoric of their leaders. This was written at the beginning of the Nixon administration and the end of the Johnson administration. But I think it still rings true given the Trump administration today. Our sense of otherness has moved from outside of our boarders to within our boarders in a terrifying way.

I really enjoyed this book. It was very thought provoking and definitely something worth checking out.

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Talking about Depression: You aren’t “Broken”

I’ve wanted to write this one for a while now. It’s a common theme in books, songs, and movies that if you have depression or PTSD that you’re a broken person. A shell of who you used to be. Yes, you’re different than you were before the trauma or the start of your depression. You aren’t broken though. I think about this every time I hear lovelytheband’s song broken. Which talks about how a couple gets together because they were both depressed in a similar way. This is the basis of starting a relationship together.

I find this problematic, because it implies that a very natural reaction to stressful situations leads us to be broken that everything is our fault and that there’s no systemic problem at play here. For example, calling a solider with PTSD, broken may make it harder for them to get help because it puts the burden on them. The fact that they have PTSD is solely their fault when it certainly wasn’t their fault. There were a whole slew of reasons that lead them to enlisting in the first place. They were not the person making the decision to go to war. They weren’t the one making the decision to lead them into the battle that caused them to experience the traumatic event. Even if they were in charge, it’s impossible to know¬†a priori what sort of event would trigger PTSD for a given person or themselves.

When it comes to more general depression due to the general factors controlling your life, think of that friend you know that never seems to have luck and ends up working at some shitty gas station. The one that was super smart that everyone thought would do really well for themselves. But then one thing went sideways, maybe they got sick, then their future collapsed into a single point where there’s no way out. Their going to be depressed. They aren’t broken, even though they have been beat up. They are reacting in an emotional way and a natural way. That person isn’t in that position because they wanted to be there. Their life isn’t what they wanted it to be. That doesn’t mean they are a broken failure of a person. Lucky always plays a role in anything that happens in our lives. For some people, it’s a case of bad luck that leads you to where you are. Other people they get a lucky break a different way and end up with a very different life.

I bring up the job example, because I watched a really interested video on YouTube, by a channel I enjoy watching, WiseCrack. They looked at the psychology and physiology of being depressed and what can cause a person to feel depressed. They typically explore themes in pop culture using philosophy and they’ve explored the Philosophy of One Punchman before. This time they use the same character to investigate depression related to not being properly challenged in your life. In this context “properly” can mean the amount of stress you’ve experienced across your life, it could be too much or too little. Each resulting in differing negative consequence when you’re stressed in the future. The other context for properly challenged means that even if you had been stressed in a healthy manner growing up, that in your current job you could be insufficiently challenged leaving you without a meaningful life.

Neither case means that you’re broken. You are reacting to what your body has been trained to respond to its entire life. Which isn’t being broken. Society¬†is broken though. There are so many things that don’t align with our intrinsic values or needs, that we can’t help but look broken if we’re doing something that runs counter to that societal norm.

Anyway, I plan to revisit this topic again in the future. In the interim, check out some of the science of depression due to missing meaning in life.

A Competition of Values

I’ve written about values in the past and it was something that I’ve felt was really important to me. However, it wasn’t until I had read Lost Connections (see my review here) that my values, education as a Lean practitioner, and my work environment was a major source of my depression. I think at some level I knew this, because I would get frustrated often and talk about it with the one or two people that really understood it. When I read two sections of Lost Connections, I put a couple pieces together.

In one section, Hari talks about how being unable to control things in your job, regardless of the type of work, completely destroys someone’s sense of worth and drives you into a state of hopelessness and depression. This can lead to anxiety and the inability to plan, because the depression and anxiety shrink your time horizon down to the immediacy of dealing with the person in control of your work life. This is something that his abhorrent to Lean, Agile, and Six Sigma methodologies. Where the goal is to push down decision making to the person closest to the actual work. In companies that really focus on driving down cost or having the single point of decision making, this can be anathema to the company culture.

The second section that hit home was the portion about our culture being at odds with our intrinsic values. Considering that I’ve been immersed so deeply with Lean, I have a strong sense of what i believe is fair for technology and social policies, it’s unsurprising that the current political environment was contributing to my depression. I had tried to fight this by writing, but I had just felt beaten down. I didn’t feel like I had anyone around me to talk with to support my values, this plunged me into farther depression.

This is where you need to find like people around you and I completely failed in that. I needed support for my values to be able to compete with the unhealthy cultural values i was thrown into at work. While I threw myself into an unhealthy amount of news and media about current politics. These two together over a series of months and years really started to take a toll on me. I suspect that I’m not alone in this. No matter what your principles are, you need to have a strong support network to keep those values healthy. You also have to be aware that your values are under attack by a society that values things very differently than you do. By a society that’s trying to exploit your anxiety to take your money to make you feel better. Because that item is the only thing that will make you feel better.

I had thought I was immune to that because I read a lot. I wasn’t out on Facebook or any places like that really trying to keep up with the Joneses. But I believe that I just dealt with that issue in other ways, including eating more than I should when I’m depressed, having a couple more drinks that I needed, or by shutting myself away from friends and family through gaming or reading or staring off into nothingness.

However, I now know that this is a thing that has happened to me and I can stop and listen to what I’m feeling. I’m going to with help of my friends locally and online to discuss my values and how I’m feeling about things. I’m going to sit with these feelings to understand them and figure out what it is that is in conflict causing me to feel this way and then make a plan to address it. As it is, i’m going to be working with my wife to figure how to get more connected with nature and how to get connected with more people in the area. As a way to get connected and be healthier.

I’m really glad I found this book, because it’s helped me feel a lot lighter about things. It’s helped me understand that I’m not broken, I have problems that cause depression, but they are solvable and I just need to ask for help and figure out to fix them with my partner.