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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Government Policy and Technology Innovation

In a way that mirrors yesterday’s court ruling, the FCC announce they were going to investigate and likely force serious changes in the world of set top boxes. The FCC, at one point, forced and supported the cable industry in controlling the types of set top boxes (Set top boxes are cable boxes – Roku and AppleTV are cableless competitors) available to consumers. Since then, we’ve suffered with mediocre and extremely expensive boxes. Boxes that cost $16/month and over time you end up paying for a box 10 times over. The gist of this issue is whether or not to allow companies to make “soft” cable cards. Right now, if you want to decode any video from a coax cable from Comcast, you must have a physical card to do the decoding. There’s nothing preventing this from being accomplished entirely using software once you get the signal into the box and that’s what this is trying to encourage.

Granted, this has taken a while for the FCC to wake up and look at the competitive landscape and see that this isn’t in the public interest. Defining exactly what is in the public interest is a difficult because everyone sees this in a different light. However, it’s pretty obvious that something that you end up paying $1,920 over span of ten years isn’t in the public interest. The competition, Roku and AppleTV, each cost between 100-200 one time and you can use it until it dies which will probably be something like 10 years. I’ve had my Roku HD for 5 years now and it still works great. It would make perfect sense for me to buy a version, assuming I had cable at all, that would allow me to watch cable through it. Everything all in one place.

This is the type of regulation that government should be celebrated for encouraging. Granted they screwed it up to begin with and they are only righting a wrong now, but they’re on the right path. Regulation like Net Neutrality is a similar decision that can spur innovation. Looking at T-Mobile’s binge on plan, you can see why we need this. If I’m a small streaming company or, ya know, YouTube, I look at this platform and see how it’s slanted against me and limits what I’m capable of delivering on T-Mobile’s network.

in the case of the FBI and forcing technology companies to change their technology to reduce security, it’s nice to see an organization that’s willing to at least consider improving opportunities for innovators. Sure it may look like picking winners and losers – but when most policy is driven by current winners picking them to lose sure looks more like balancing the playing field to me.

Protecting the web and user through a Internet Bill of Rights

The guy who helped invent the internet, no not Al Gore, Tim Berners-Lee wants a new Magna Carta for the internet. If he was American it’d be a bill of rights or declaration of independence, if he was an anarchist, it’d be a manifesto. This call for a clear set of rules for the online/cyberspace is nothing new. The first article was written in 1986 – 3 years before the internet was created. This was when kids were using phones and a few other systems to hack things. The most recent was only a few years ago from an internet website.

Creating these documents is an effort in futility. We already have a bill of rights in the US that SHOULD be protecting us from the NSA, GCHQ, CIA, and other organizations. These organizations, at least the US ones, should be forbidden from given information they “accidentally” collect on US citizens to other governments. They do though. We have secret courts with secret interpretations of laws that we as citizens have no idea what they are. How is ANOTHER Magna Carta going to help?

There’s absolutely no reason to expect our governments to abide by these new laws when they are flouting the current laws – attempting to undermine existing laws through intentionally narrower interpretations of rulings – in many cases getting slapped on the wrist later for infractions that have been going on for years.

Creating a new bill of rights, Magna Carter, or whatever will not solve the problem. The problem is not the current set of laws, though that doesn’t help, the root cause of the problem is corruption and arrogance.

Now that it’s been uncovered that the CIA hacked Congress’s Intelligence Committee, one that had been defending the NSA, there’s all sorts of kerfuffle. Congress didn’t care, excepting Ron Wyden (and a few others), until they realized that they were just as likely targets any the average Joe.

Most members of Congress are funded through companies and special interest groups. These include companies that support the NSA and other intelligence organizations. If any of those orgs funded any member of Congress on a committee that oversees anything related to intelligence gathering there’s going to be corruption. Regardless of if it’s quid pro quo or not.

We will never pass a bill of rights for the internet as long as there’s potential conflicts of interest (funded by companies that bills are trying to regulate). We must address corruption before we can hope to have an effective set of rights for the internet or anywhere else.

What’s the difference between Ma Bell and Comcast?

If you were born in the 80’s or before you know that Ma Bell was the only phone company in town. Born any later than that you were born into a world without a single monopoly for telecommunication. That’s right, we’ve had a point in our collective history where there was only a single phone company. There are rules in place that prevent something similar from happening with Comcast, but we’ve been there before. However, I believe there are critical differences. AT&T knew they were a monopoly and they were a state sanctioned monopoly. They did everything in their power to keep prices down to prevent being broken up. AT&T actually had a broader monopoly than what Comcast could ever hope to have. They made the phones that worked on the line, they made all the telecom technology that made it work, and they designed the services that made it work. This is something called a natural monopoly, which I’ve written about before. A former founder of Comcast has declared Comcast a natural monopoly.

The biggest difference between Comcast and AT&T, back in the day, was that they did everything they could to keep the government happy. Was it perfect, no clearly not, there were shady business practices, but we as a society benefited greatly from Bell Labs. To this stay is still one of the greatest research facilities that ever existed. If it wasn’t for Bell Labs our current way of life would be very different. I highly suggest checking out the book on it.

Comcast claims to be pushing innovation with their X1 Xfinity platform, but that’s not really true, it’s simply a new operating system pushing content. Voice activation isn’t innovation and if that’s your main selling point then you’re in serious trouble. As I mentioned yesterday, the Netflix deal is a major concern, the Verge is saying the Internet is fucked and that we need to be contacting the FCC daily to un-fuck it.

I’m not entirely sure that the FCC can fix it. Congress has greatly hamstrung the FCC in dealing with internet companies, furthermore, their solution of calling the internet a Utility won’t work. If you aren’t aware we’ve had big pushes to deregulate the utility industry which unfortunately hasn’t really made rates better in many cases or in the long run. I think that it’s fair to say that in the telecom industry this is true as well. The impact of the AT&T break up has been this long term collection of conglomerates that continually increase price as well as “Fees” which similar to baggage fees are hidden from the “price” of the service. So, treating the internet like a utility isn’t going to work. What we need to do is treat it like a road.

Everyone that uses a car on the road is taxed based on use (Gasoline taxes) everyone pays for a portion of the maintenance based on other local taxes too. No, these aren’t perfect and are going to be under pressure based on hybrid and electric cars – and new models are being proposed. Of course one way to do this is through toll roads (which really never work) or through some sort of black box in the car to measure mileage (which no one wants).

Essentially it’s a pay for bandwidth consumed, so if you’re a high consumer of bandwidth you’d pay more, but the rates need to be realistic and the goal would be to cover expenses and continually improve service while making it cheaper. Which brings me back to AT&T – the president of Bell Labs had one mantra anything could be tested but only if it could lead to a “Better, cheaper or both” network. A public internet similar to a road that was paid to continually get cheaper, better, more secure, and faster is the only way to truly un-fuck the internet. It’s not likely to happen because it’s not a capitalist response. However, the internet these days is similar to public transpiration – it’s goal isn’t to make money, it’s goal is to enable economic activity. If think of it that way, then we can see the long term benefit of the whole economy rather than singular actors.