All posts by marchudson

Ex- health care professional, ex-ing activist and ambivalently aspiring academic. Climate doomster. We are so toast.

Gig review: TV Smith in #Manchester 24 May

There are obvious signs that the species, far from being ‘sapiens‘ (wise) is as dumb as a bag of hammers.

Item the first: ignoring climate scientists and biologists for the last three decades (or more), and continuing to burn fossil fuels as if there were, um, no tomorrow.

Item the second: building up nuclear weapons that can never be ‘used’ (though they do of course run a nice line in intimidation and keeping the owners of the bomb making factories in hookers and cocaine) to the level where we could turn the planet to a crisp many many times over, and might do so if there’s a flock of geese or an asteroid shower or a hemorrhoid in power.

Item the third: the fact that a singer of the brilliance, wit, passion and literacy of TV Smith plays to relatively small crowds in small venues. What the actual fuck is wrong with you, humans? You have a man of extraordinary talent playing songs with killer lyrics (the verbal dexterity is extraordinary) about life, love, loss, despair, the depredations of capitalism and ‘the system’ and you don’t even turn up?! Srsly.

For the record: TV Smith, with a 40 year back catalogue (and all of it fresh) ripped out 25 or so of his brilliant tracks tonight at Aatma. He started with a request (from me) – March of the Giants, and rattled through old ones (Tomahawk Cruise), brand new ones (they’re good), fairly new ones (I Delete, On Replay) and everything in between (Expensive being poor, Gary Gilmour’s Eyes, New Church, The Lion and the Lamb, Atlantic Tunnel). The trademark competence, energy, verve, guts and humour were on display. A great night, basically.

 

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Something fishy in the lake: of politics and power

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

The old saw goes ‘give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you have fed him for life.’

The saw may help some hearts soar, but it makes mine sore.  It pisses meoff . It pissed me off when it was the basis of an Oxfam advertising campaign back in 1996/7, and it pissed me off still, two decades on, when I saw it in a discussion of empowerment.

Simply this – the man may well have known how to fish all along.  The problem might be that his fishing rod keeps getting stolen, or broken, or, worse, the lake is being over-fished by factory ships dragnetting and driftnetting and hoovering up every last scrap of protein and selling it to fat rich urbanites elsewhere.  And so the focus on teaching a man to fish enables us to feel both virtuous and competent (we know how to fish) without ever addressing the power relationships from which we very probably benefit (we’re not the ones worried about not being able to eat in this story).  And it is therefore our job to teach those to fish if they didn’t know how (for whatever reason), to help people sustain their ability to make a livelihood once they have the knowledge, but most of all ask the question – who has been fucking with the lake, and how do we stop them continuing to fuck with the lake ‘going forward’ as the bureaucrats and politicians like to say…

So, from now on, whenever someone uses that image, I will stick up my hand and politely ask two rude questions: so, in this analogy, who owns the lake? What is to stop them from strip-mining it?”

Generosity and conviviality in the age of algorithmic oppression: #Manchester #odmnoble

algorithms of oppressionThis was a superb event. A diverse audience of somewhere between 80 and 90 attended a truly excellent event on ‘algorithms of oppression’ yesterday in Manchester. The event, hosted by Open Data Manchester  with the support of The Federation and Manchester School of Art, was centred on a lecture and q and a with Dr Safiya Noble   of USC Annenberg. This blogpost is an attempt to appreciate the richness, breadth and generosity of her talk, and also provide links and ‘bookmarks’. It can’t be a blow-by-blow account, but the event WAS live streamed and the organisers hope to get it up on a video sharing platform soon enough. Comments on the blog welcome, especially if I have mangled something, their are tpyos and that sort of thing…  Stuff in [square brackets] is me editorialising/suggesting additional lines of enquiry/books – I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that Noble has arcane and weird taste in anecdotes.

The event began with generous amounts of alcohol, fruit (grapes! Nom nom. Apples! Nom nom nom) and nibbles, with time for people to catch up with old friends and make new ones.  Julian Tait of Open Data Manchester opened proceedings explaining that ODM, which has been going for about 8 years is a community-led organisation that tries to take a critical look at (open) data and what it might mean for democracy, participation, sustainability and all those Good Things.  (The tagline says it best – Supporting responsible and intelligent data practice in Greater Manchester and beyond). They have a bunch of events coming up, including the brilliantly named ‘Joy Diversion’  (scroll to the bottom) and he then asked if anyone else had events. There was on – this Thursday, 10 May Meet Amazing Data Women, open to anyone who identifies as a women.

A representative of the host building, The Federation gave a short talk, mentioning that it’s a newish community led business with free desk space for tech  businesses that are trying to do useful things around sustainability.  They also have events coming up, including something on May 30 on technology and slavery, with Mary Mazzio, the director of the documentary ‘I am Jane Doe’, and the launch of a report about images and disinformation/misinformation and the recent UK and French elections on June 5.

Then it was on to the main event. Professor Farida Vis, from Manchester School of Art, introduced the speaker Dr Safiya Noble.   She is (not yet) well-known to British audiences I suspect, but if tonight is anything to go by a) she should be and b) she will be. FT  readers may have read the article about her typing in ‘black girls’ to google while looking for things to take her niece to in New York and the results being, well, NSFW [that’s ‘not safe for work’, for any of reader who isn’t quite as down wiv da yoof as the 47 year old middle-class blogger who has to be told off by his wife for quoting The Wire as if it gives him urban(e) cred. Truedat.]

Noble works on the ways in which information technology, while seeming ‘neutral’ [the best trick the devil ever played…] actually perpetuates (intensifies) pre-existing prejudices. She’s been working on this for years and she knows a hell of a lot, but wears it lightly.  Noble has an engaging and charismatic stage presence. She clearly knows her stuff, knows why it matters and is keen to communicate it, but also to engage with questions and critiques.  She began with an anecdote about her new book.  When she first got the contract with NYU Press  her editor there (whom she praised – Noble is generous at giving ‘shout outs’ to colleagues) said that there was no way the word algorithm could be in the title – “nobody except you nerds knows what an algorithm is.”  Well, now, with bots crawling all over our minds like spiders hatching from an egg sac in a wound, everyone knows differently.  Noble said that even her father-in-law is saying “what’s up with those algorithms?” Noble then pointed out that while her research – and her talk – would be about the USA, what she is studying [warning about] is happening globally, at different speeds in different ways.

This of course is part of a broader ‘techlash’ – a backlash against the utopian promises and hype [see Gartner Hype Cycles for more on this].  As a Wired article Noble referenced put it “2017 was the year we fell out of love with algorithms.”

The next thing that happened was a recurring theme: Noble enthusiastically cited the work of another academic (in this case Wendy Chun, and her 2006 book “Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fibre Optics“.  Two things here – firstly this is a super-helpful habit, sharing your overview of an issue and its back history. Secondly , she wasn’t citing other scholars merely to say their work was incomplete and she had the missing pieces of the puzzle. This wasn’t an alpha (male) academic exercise in the swinging of, er, citations, of the type that those of us privileged to live in the ivory tower so often encounter.

[Btw- strangely many of the authors working on digital oppressions  are African-American or BME. Very odd that that African Americans might have the most acute and penetrating perceptions about the ways that power works. It’s almost as if they have been on the pointy end of oppression for centuries. But anyway…]

She also mentioned Ann Everett, but I can’t read my scrawl to get the context.  [Ah, the irony – google helps out-  In Digital Diaspora; A Race for Cyberspace – “Deftly interweaving history, culture, and critical theory, Anna Everett traces the rise of black participation in cyberspace, particularly during the early years of the Internet”.  Noble had by this point already reminded us just how revolutionary and useful Google was when it arrived in 2000, making it actually possible to find stuff…]

Anyway, Noble’s thesis, in her book – omfg I haven’t linked to her book yet-  is that black bodies are ‘data disposable’ , upon which technology is practiced and perfected  [And for those of you who think ‘conspiracy theory’/chip on shoulder, why don’t you check out the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male  [the clue is in the name] and how the pill was tested on Puerto Ricans. To back this up she introduced Vilna Bashi Treitler and a book called The Ethnicity Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions, which says that there is a ‘core binary spectrum’ (white and non-white), with immigrants striving to become white (think the Irish and Italians)  [the same thing happened in Australia, – whiteness is such a freaking fiction].

Noble mentioned a backlash against talking about race since the 1990s, with the rise of so-called ‘colour-blind ideology’, a favoured phrase of venture capitalists looking to fund projects. It has the odd effect of rendering white and Asian men invisible [so ‘normal’ as to be unseeable]

Two more academics working on this got a shout out – Michael Brown [can’t find – perhaps a reference to Ferguson victim?] and Helen A. Neville.

In the one moment that, for me, was questionable Noble pointed out that the rise of ‘computer knows best’ ideology grew in the 1960s at the same time as Civil Rights legislation was being passed and participation in decision-making became at least thinkable for minorities [that said, the use of technology to deskill and suppress workers power is indisputable – see David Noble Forces of Production  I just think this was a slightly long bow to draw…]

What we are seeing now is analogous to ‘redlining’ (where banks refused loans to entire categories of people – a practice now outlawed).  Profiles of individuals are being built on a mass level – what does it mean to have a data profile about you that you can’t intervene on?  For Noble, AI is going to be a massive Human Rights issue in the 21st century, and it is one we don’t have the legal/political frameworks for yet.

More fellow academics and thinkers then got a shout out

[Noble says that this list is just ‘scratching the surface’, and that we need to mainstream the discussion of tech ethics)

Noble told an amusing story about having been on twitter for so long that she actually has the @safiya handle but can’t use it because it gets flooded with mis-tagging  (the same thing happens to a guy called @johnlewis, who has great fun with people’s mis-tagging while looking for the store).

Searching questions
Moving on to the question of how trusted search engines are, Noble pointed to a 2012  Pew Centre study which showed that most Americans are satisfied with search engines, most use Google (thus, Noble says, that’s what she studies!, and most use it often.  Search engines are therefore seen as a ‘trusted public good’, the people’s portal.  The cost of this is that we’ve lost the art of/respect for content curated by an expert.

Noble then shared the experience by which she might be known to a general UK audience – she googled ‘black girls’ (having been told by a colleague not to do it from a university computer.  And sure enough, it was pages and pages of porn.  Noble wrote an article on this for Bitch magazine, published in Spring 2012. By autumn Google had suppressed the porn in the search results [a pattern that would continue  – individual problems dealt with on an ad hoc reactive basis]

Noble then asked if anyone had heard of a UK band called Black Girls, which still appears in the searches. One of the 90ish present had, leading Noble to observethe band was better at search engine optimisation than it was at music distribution…

Next up Noble gave a shout out to an online collection of Jim Crow memorabilia at www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel, before going on to recount how, in 2015,  DeRay Mckesson  (with leverage acquired from having been followed by Beyonce) showed that when you googled the ‘n-word’house Google Maps took you to the White House.

Again, Google’s response was to talk about ‘glitches’ (in otherwise perfect systems.

Another example – the following year chap called Kabir Ali was livestreamed by his friends googling ‘three black teenages’ and ‘three white teenagers’.  The former gave mugshots, the latter healthy non-threatening sportsballing folks

[This stuff matters. Somewhere (Malcolm Gladwell?) there’s an anecdote about someone regularly doing the Implicit Association Test, which furtles out the links you make ‘unintentionally’ and not being able to figure out why his results were improving –then realised he was watching the Olympics, where black athletes were doing well/being praised]

Anyway, the following day, it was tweaked.

Next up – googling “unprofessional hairstyles for work” came up with lots of black women, while “”professional hairstyles for work” came up with white women with pony tails.

See also Jessica Davis and Oscar Gandy 1999 Racial identity and media orientation: Exploring the Nature of Constraint. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, (3), pp.367-397.

[I mentioned this to the brilliant Sarah Irving and she mentioned the ‘if anyone needs to know that orientalism is still a thing, google ‘sheikh’ – still loads of images of kidnappy/rapey men on camels and their insatiable appetites for white flesh]

So beyond being offensive and demoralising, what are the broader political implications, if any?  Noble pointed to a 2013 study that showed that the types of results which came up on the first page when someone googled a candidate could influence who people would vote for, and that search engines need to be regulated. [I haven’t got this totally]  This is the article I think – Viability, Information Seeking and Vote Choice.  (Of course, googlebombing is nowt new – see what Dan Savage did to Senator Santorum, way back in the day).

Skip forward- after the 2016 Presidential Election, if you googled ‘final election result’ in the US you got taken to a lying site, that said Trump won not only the Electoral College vote, but ALSO the popular vote.

Further links

Neoliberal co-optation

So, the response has been predictable, and probably effective.  Google has come up with ‘Black Girls Code’ – in this narrative the main problem is not structural racism but that 5 year old black girls haven’t been getting involved enough… Noble cited Heather Hiles as noting that less than one per cent of venture capital goes into projects led by black women.

Noble then moved on to the deeper question of who makes the tech, and what damage is done in the making  of it (the subject of her next work – following the production and value chains).  All these techs are “resting precariously on extraction in the Global South” with enormous amounts of hidden labour [and ecosystem devastation] “in I-phone 12 or whatever we’re going to be on in a week” – all part of the (story of) infinite linear progress of technology [ah, the hedonic treadmill, donchajustlove it]

This sense of technology as our (submissive because female) friend is there in the new personal digital assistants such as Microsoft’s Ms Dewey, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.  Noble mentioned that a few weeks ago she was talking with robotics professors at Stanford who had not thought through the implications of children learning to bark commands at women’s voices…

[There’s a great Onion story “Congress Demands to Know How Facebook Got people to Give Up their Civil Liberties without a Fight” in which they quiz Mark Zuckerberg on how he convinced people to let bugs/spies into their houses in a way the FBI could only dream of. ]

Other problems include so-called “predictive policing” and embodied software (Robocop Lives!!) Simone Browne and racialized policing.  A concrete (in every sense) example – in Champagne Illinois there are [were?], in the poor neighbourhoods, virtually no sidewalks.  So, what do kids do? They walk in the street. And what do the cops do? Write them up for jaywalking.  As the Violent Femmes once sang ‘this will go down on your permanent record’….   [A neat example of how, as per critical realism, we have to think about material constraints, not just ideologies and ‘rules’ – see Sorrell, 2018:  “Explaining sociotechnical transitions: A critical realist perspective]

Final example – even videos of atrocities (Eric Garner dying, saying ‘I can’t breath’) attract advertising revenues because, well – lots of people watch them.  [We monetise our own catastrophes, whether we like it or not…]

What is to be done?

This was the last, and by far the briefest, section of Noble’s talk. She had five suggestions

  • Build repositories and platforms that belong to the public. (Noble noted that the convergence of states and multinational companies made it hard to imagine platforms that were not based on advertising revenues)
  • Resist colorblind/racist/sexist technology development (sex dolls got a mention)
  • Decrease technology over-development and e-waste
  • More info and research visualisation for the public
  • Never give up

 

Noble closed by observing that the prediction is that by 2030 1% of the population will own 2/3rds of the world’s wealth. There will be intensified datafication, more devices, with more promises of seamless and frictionless liberty.  But we can’t eat the digital. We can’t make an iPhone sandwich….

 

Question and Answer

There was time for some questions.  What was interesting here – besides the info itself – was that Noble gave quick and detailed answers, without waffle or using the Q and A as a chance for a thinly-veiled continuation of her lecture (we’ve all seen that happen, right?)

Please do NOT take anything I’ve ascribed to Noble as gospel. I may have got stuff wrong. I don’t do shorthand.  Check the recording!

Question 1: Is Capitalism an algorithm of oppression?

Noble: Yes, of course… goes on to point to the racialized element of this.  2008 financial crisis as the biggest wipe out of black wealth since the Reconstruction [e.g. here and here]

Cites Cathy O’Neil Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.

Question 2 Audre Lorde said that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.  Does this mean that we should be encouraging people to ‘disconnect.?

Noble:  No. It’s cute to tell people to delete facebook, but we need collective solutions, not individual ones. If I stop paying my rent, I’m not taking down capitalism.We need to strengthen our position in the situation we are in.  For example “fair sourcing”, and design where nobody dies [a challenge she put to comp sci students who had to take her class recently.  We need a more powerful public response.  We used to have 80% unionisation after world war two.  Need that back.  That’s not easy.  In retrospect everyone was at the 1963 March on Washington, but  of course it was no more than 10 percent making the change at the time. We need to find that 10% again

[And keep them for the long haul.  Best book on the Civil Rights Struggle I ever read was ‘And We are Not Saved’ by Debbie Louis. Extraordinary.]

[I asked that question.  What I MEANT to say was ‘in your opinion, are there inherent properties within the technology that mean it will never be effective as a weapon of liberation. If so, what then?’ but I bollocksed it up.  I am sure there is a broader lesson in this – perhaps something about about letting smarter-than-me black women speak for themselves and staying out of the way, but I can’t quite see what it is….]

Question 3:  (from a biracial woman).  Was searching for home insurance with a white friend. They have same financial profile, and asked for two quotes on the same house.  Guess who was quoted the cheaper premium…

[At which point TV Smith’s ‘It’s expensive being poor’ sprang to mind.]

Noble:  That’s what we call code data discrimination, which we can’t see.  We have to have public policy on this.  And most discrimination laws are about proving intent – we should be looking at outputs and impacts.  There is this very powerful ‘tech is neutral’ idea which we have to contest.

Noble then gave the example of a (black?) guy who was the son of a financial planner, and a financial planner himself i.e. ‘responsible adult’ had his Amex card declined. Eventually, after multiple calls it emerged he’d once bought something in a Walmart in the Wrong Part of Town and the algorithm had ‘decided’ he was credit risk.

Question 4: to what extent are Silicon Valley executives oblivious to the problem?

Noble: They’re largely underprepared. If you’re designing tech for society and you don’t know anything about society, you’re underprepared.  The kind of people who end up in Silicon Valley mostly went to the top five universities and will have been able to transfer out of their humanities components early. For some the last humanities course they took will have been high school English.  But even if by some miracle they’d taken ethnic/women’s studies, that wouldn’t necessarily help, since they are coding/designing within a set of institutions/beliefs/paradigms [my paraphrase/word salad].

And there is defensiveness/hostility in some companies about all of this.

Question 5:  How much of this is unconscious bias?

Noble: I don’t like that phrase. UB let’s everyone off the hook.  Get’s us back into intent questions, where we need to look at outputs and impacts, and then use public policy, HR policies, hiring etc.

What kind of world do we want? One were people can’t afford to eat?  How do we do things differently.

Question 6: Thanks for opening my eyes about search engine bias: beyond moderation of search engines, what?

Noble: we must separate advertising content from knowledge. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat, fine, but if, as Dylan Roof (the 19 year old who murdered 9 black churchgoers in Virginia), well, he was doing ‘sense-making’ on Travyon Martin (murdered by George Zimmerman) and was led to lots of white supremacist sites.  There’s a chapter in the book on this.

We need to demarcate better, and realise that google should not be a ‘trusted public good’.

 

Further reading [my suggestions’

 

What I would have done differently

I have been to (and blogged) about some truly appalling events.  This, mercifully was not one of them.  Huzzah! Still, it’s usually possible to offer unsolicited advice. So here goes:

One of the (largely) false promises of social media is that it will decrease our sense of loneliness/anomie. When we organise “meatspace” events, we should take actions that reduce that loneliness. I would have had people turn to someone they don’t know at the outset and introduce themselves for a couple of minutes. Who are they? Why did they come? What are they hoping to get.  No wider feedback, just that. (It works- see here).

I would have challenged Noble to talk slightly less about the problems (though it was incredibly eye opening) and at greater length about the ‘solutions’ and how they might be implemented, and by who.

During Q and A mostly men’s hands (about 4 to 2, when actual gender balance in room was roughly 55/45 male to female).  (Fwiw, I think meetings are institutionally sexist). Have people turn to the person next to them to compare notes, and get help honing their question. Then ask for a show of hands and pick male and female hands-  or on other metrics- an obvious one in this case would be race)
Upcoming events

Sat May 19 Joy Diversion

“Calling all ramblers, explorers and meanderers. Surveyors, cartographers and inquisitors – people who look up to the rooftops and down into the culverts. Join us for an afternoon of mapping, exploring and wandering in Central Manchester and Salford.”

 

Events, dear boy, events – of oil slicks, rich people and creeping

Musing #1 on Molotch, H. 1970. Oil in Santa Barbara and Power in America. Sociological Inquiry, 40, 131-144.

In January 1969 the first big Oil Slick That Mattered washed up on the beaches of rich people in California. Sure, there had been the Torrey Canyon in 1967, where someone took an ill-advised shortcut and hit a reef. Cornwall copped it, and hands were wrung. (1)

sb-oil-spill
Photo from here.  Turns out, still having health impacts…whodathunkit

But Santa Barbara was different – bigger, more ‘photogenic’ and happening in a place where there were lots of powerful, plugged-in folks who (thought that they) had hands that could pull on the levers of power. They got an education, and this magnificent article, explains how.

 

Being powerful locally, it turns out, doesn’t give you ‘juice’ nationally. The local yokels should have suspected this when, the year before, they were unable to stop the federal government granting oil leases on seabed that was patently unsuitable (no bedrock, porous as heck). Once the worst happened , sure, there were rallies, marches, lobbying, court cases, and so forth, but over the following months, the good burghers came to realise that access to power-makers doesn’t equal influence (a lesson environmental campaigners should note, but don’t).

There are several points at which Molotch (who is still around and has had a stellar career with a whole bunch of contributions) seems to quite enjoy watching and recounting this dawning realisation. The clearest is near the end of the article (which you should defo read)

Similarly a well-to-dow widow, during a legal proceeding in Federal District Court, in which Santa Barbara was once again “losing,” whispered in the author’s ear:

“Now I understand why those young people at the University go around throwing things… The individual has no rights at all.” (2)

(Molotch, 1970:141)

Molotch was writing before Downs’ seminal ‘Up and Down with Ecology- the ‘issue-attention cycle‘, and doesn’t address the inevitable decline in attention/agitation (though Molotch clearly knew that was coming

It’s a great essay, that stands up as fresh and important today, half a century and so many Big Spills later…

I’ll write at least once more on it, and there is a 1975 piece Molotch co-authored on the national (press) coverage the spill that is also going to get read, but probably not until #afterSubmission.

Meanwhile, those events

Pseudo-events

Molotch uses Daniel Boorstin‘s then-relatively-recent concept of the Pseudo Event to great effect, (“A pseudo-event occurs when men arrange conditions to simulate a certain kind of event, such that certain prearranged consequences follow as though the actual event had taken place” (p.139)) describing local participation in decision making especially, but also President Nixon’s carefully stage-managed ‘inspection’ flight.

Creeping Events

Molotch then introduces what he calls ‘creeping events’.
“A creeping event is, in a sense, the opposite of a pseudo-event. It occurs when something is actually taking place, but when the manifest signs of the event are arranged to occur at an inconspicuously gradual and piece-meal pace, thus eliminating some of the consequences which would otherwise follow from the event if it were to be perceived all-at-once to be occurring.” (p.139)

This is analogous to the fable of the boiling frog – you get used to anything. Right now we are seeing it with the slow normalisation of pervasive scanning of the population (jay walkers?!).

An historical aside- shortly after  Molotch was writing this there was another famous CREEP going on – the Committee for the  Re-Election the President. But that’s all watergate under the bridge now…

Focussing Events

Later on, in 1984, when John Kingdon was first launching what has come to be called the Multiple Streams Approach, he said that for a policy window (within which major change might be possible) to open, one of the necessary-but-not-sufficient conditions was a ‘focussing event’ – something loud, unexpected/influential.

So, really, creeping events are efforts to avoid the coming of focussing events (Molotch quotes an internal Interior Department memo about the policy of refusing public hearings before oil drilling – “We preferred not to stir up the natives any more than possible.” ((p. 139)

I’ll write something else about this great paper – there is a Monty Python connection worth flagging. In the meantime, around the park and in front of the thesis….

 

Footnote
(1) Two ironies. One, the Torrey Canyon was named for a geographical feature in … California and Two, the same company that owned it, Union Oil, was also responsible for the oil well that went splat in SB. Oh, those scamps.

(2) I wonder if she sustained view that after the Bank of America went up

“Staying with the trouble” – Donna Haraway quote leads to productive ‘trouble’

‘Staying with the Trouble’ insists on working, playing and thinking in multispecies cosmopolitics in the face of the killing of entire ways of being on earth that characterise the age cunningly called ‘now’ and the place called ‘here.’

Donna Haraway

I am the teaching assistant on a VERY interesting course for third year geography students about ‘Wildlife in the Age of Humans’.  It’s been a blast reading challenging and well-chosen readings, attending v. good lectures and then trying to make seminars interesting/engaging/challenging-in-the-right-way.

I make brief prompting powerpoints for the seminars.  One trick has been to get people reading out quotes (from the article they (are supposed to) have read and get a conversation going that way.

This week the first quote was the one above.  They’d been exposed to Haraway before in week 1, on the subject of gorilla dioramas and the creation of ‘nature’.

So, with this the reading out of the quote was easy (it’s a sentence!) but the “unpacking” took 10 or 15 minutes, and was super-useful and engaging (‘lightbulb moments’ for a couple of the students, I think.)

And here is the unpacking that we all came up with

‘Staying with the Trouble’ – means not giving up when the subject matter or object (a scorpion, sewers, ‘bad’ behaviour) makes you squeamish or angry. It means trying to stay in a place of ambiguity when cherished notions and beliefs are being attacked or undermined.  It’s at these points – of uncertainty, of fear, when your defences might go up – that, if you are brave and lucky, you might make a ‘breakthrough’.  You might not be a happier or ‘better’ person afterwards, but then again, you might.

-insists on working, playing and thinking.  This mostly came from me – Haraway wants to point out that there are more ways of gaining knowledge and/or wisdom than the standard(ised) whitelabcoandclipboarddoubleblindrandomised way that is held up.  How do humans learn to do anything – via productive play, mentored and corrected etc. How do we learn to be creative? By mashing stuff up, “failing” recombinating etc.

in multispecies cosmopolitics.  The point of the course, this multispecies thing. Think of humans not as the centre of the universe (the way the Earth used to be though of) but as one species among others.  Cosmopolitics – students weren’t familiar, but recognised the word cosmopolitan – a mixed bunch of people rubbing along, co-habitating or even being convivial.  i.e. the normative/intellectual essence of the course.

in the face of the killing of entire ways of being on earth.  The destruction of ecosystems and species, the sixth great extinction, the mcdonaldisation of society as one student put it.  Celebrity culture, Hollywood, standardisation, the death of languages, other cultures. The insistence on ‘one global culture’ and the work that that does to render other questions unaskable or, if askable, only answerable in one way (‘the market is natural/will provide’)

that characterise the age cunningly called ‘now’ and the place called ‘here.’  They struggled more here, and were intrigued by the word ‘cunningly’.  Got them thinking about how the insistence on ‘now’ means that our attention is diverted from the past and the future (especially the consequences for future generations – human and “non-human”), and ‘here’ means an increasingly standardised architecture and culture work. Cunningly because the use of ‘here’ and ‘now’ foreclose those awkward questions, leaving less defensive institutional work to be done…

 

 

 

Justice or Just us?  “Data Justice” and the big questions #Manchester

The newspapers and webfeeds are full of stories of the (un)intended consequences of the increased “datafication” of society, and the ways in which people are sorted, silenced and discriminated against by ‘algorithms.’ It is rich terrain for academics and activists (the two beasts need not be totally distinct), and today at the University of Manchester around 30 people got to hear from two people who are working on the field of ‘data justice’.

The Manchester Institute of Innovation Research and the Environmental Sustainability Team hosted a lunchtime (but without lunch L ) seminar on these thorny questions.
First up was Prof Richard Heeks from the Centre for Development Informatics.  He explained that the work he conducts had got a start with an AHRC funded project which asked the key question “Whose Right to the Smart City?”

With the increased amount of information being collected and collated (the so-called three Vs – velocity, volume and variety) means that cities are coming to have ‘data twins’ – where a digital simulacrum is used for planning and – increasingly  experience (think Bluetooth proximity sensors beaming you time and location sensitive info and adverts).

All this raise the questions of who is, in the “twin”, absent, marginalised.  This is a problem everywhere, but perhaps especially in the ‘Global South’.

Heeks pointed to two recent papers which are top of my post-thesis reading pile

Heeks then laid out the conceptualisation of what data justice actually means in practice.  Here’s one of the intriguing conceptual maps.  They’re reminiscent of Giddens’ mid-80s modernity diagram thingies (yes, I know, I should get out more).

heeksbitlydatjus2

(I’ve lifted this from Heeks 2017, page 11)

As well as structural questions, there are also the so-called ‘three freedoms’ around visibility (which is a double-edged sword: sometimes you’d want to be invisible from the state!), engagement (who gets to be involved not just in the generation but also the analysis and distribution and re-use of data) and non-discrimination.

Heeks then briefly outlined four pro-data-justice initiatives – Kota Kita, Map Kibera, Our Pune, Our Budget and Transparent Chennai.

Interestingly (well, there was a lot of very interesting things) there’s no evidence of a ‘small data’ cycle – where data is recycled locally to improve local decision-making and lives.  Looks like big data has a big head-start…

There were several questions.  One was ncredibly perceptive and well-made (Cough.  Cough). How will those who are currently benefittng from data injustice (governments, large corporations making a killing, other actors) respond to the calls for data justice?  Will they set up confusing/astroturfy groups? Will they smear justice proponents?  What else? It’s worth investigating (gizza post-doc)

Heeks said it was an important thing to study, and pointed out that digital has already been disruptive, with unexpected consequences “we’re hearing voices we didn’t hear before.”

The second speaker was Julian Tait, CEO of Open Data Manchester (supporting responsible and intelligent data practice in Greater Manchester and beyond), which was founded in 2010.  He mentioned a fascinating event coming up on Satuday May 19 – “Joy Diversion

Calling all ramblers, explorers and meanderers. Surveyors, cartographers and inquisitors – people who look up to the rooftops and down into the culverts. Join us for an afternoon of mapping, exploring and wandering in Central Manchester and Salford.

Joy Diversion

Saturday, May 19, 2018, 12:00 PM

The Federation
Federation Street, Federation House M4 2AH , GB

19 Members Attending

Calling all ramblers, explorers and meanderers. Surveyors, cartographers and inquisitors – people who look up to the rooftops and down into the culverts. Join us for an afternoon of mapping, exploring and wandering in Central Manchester and Salford.Often viewed as a functional place of work, retail and leisure, our city centre bounded by Trinity W…

Check out this Meetup →

He explained what Open Data Manchester does, and among other things, pointed to disturbing trends in surveillance. For example, in Utrecht, the technology is allowing “pre-emptive policing”  (and the movie Minority Report did get a mention in the Q and A!).

See recent Grauniad article –
‘Living laboratories’: the Dutch cities amassing data on oblivious residents

More prosaically, but equally sinister is the potential of a lift that can read your mobile devices ID being able to tell your weight and your propensity for taking the stairs or not. Insurance companies, diet companies, etc would love that info…

All in all, a useful event exposing us to new trends in 21st living which will probably overlap and imbricate with climate change until the final civilizational collapse and general Mad Max warlordism thing…

Mental note to self – try to get an academic article published with the title “Last night a DJ saved my life….” Where DJ stands for Data Justice…

#TomLehrer in #Australia (also, happy 90th…)

Tom Lehrer celebrated his 90th birthday today – he’s definitely old and grey.

Born in New York, Lehrer began studying classical piano aged seven. However, popular music caught his eye, and he began writing show tunes . A prodigy, he started at Harvard aged 15. There he began to write comic songs, including a spoof football fight song –  “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” – which has been performed ever since.

By 1953 he had enough songs to release a 12 song album ‘Songs by Tom Lehrer’, which included classics like “The Old Dope Peddler” (“he gives the kids free samples, because he knows full well, that today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrow’s clientele”, a song telling boy scouts to “Be Prepared” (culminating – spoiler alert – in the invocation to always carry condoms) and other songs from the silly to the downright macabre.

Since US radio stations wouldn’t play songs about murder, racism, plagiarism and worse, the album was a ‘sleeper hit’ – spreading by word of mouth. Lehrer later recalled “lacking exposure in the media, my songs spread slowly. Like herpes, rather than ebola.”

Lehrer spent the next few years working as a researcher at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, and was drafted into the Army from 1955 to 1957. He continued to play nighclubs in Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco, His musical “career” then received a huge boost from…. Princess Margaret. The oration accompanying her honorary doctorate in music from the University of London mentioned her liking for Lehrer’s work.

(Lehrer ended up performed in front of the royal family, and afterwards Prince Philip shook his hand and said he’d always enjoyed listening to “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. Lehrer asked if the Queen liked it too. “Oh, she thinks it’s horrid. She leaves the room if we put it on”.)

The BBC was less shy than American radio stations about playing his songs, and Lehrer became well known in the UK, having sold 370,000 records by the end of the 1950s.

And then, in 1960, taking the opportunity that his new-found fame allowed him, he visited the Australia of Robert Menzies….

On tour in Australia

Lehrer’s music was already on the Australian radar. The previous year a Labor MP had asked the Prime Minister if he knew any of Lehrer’s work, which had been withdrawn by the record company EMI from sale for fear of offence (and possibly banned).

Menzies denied knowledge – “Do I gather that these songs are romantic or what?”

During his tour Lehrer made mock efforts to set the record straight.

When he performed in Brisbane, the chief of police tried to prevent Lehrer singing Be Prepared (aside its condom advice it had also advised “don’t solicit for your sister, that’s not nice, unless you get a good percentage of her price”).

While audiences in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney got the full benefit of Lehrer’s decidely cynical and bleak worldview (surely influenced by Yiddish sensibilities), Adelaide was not so lucky. Ruled with an iron fist by Thomas Playford, South Australia was not ready for Lehrer.

A young ALP MP called Don Dunstan asked questions of Playford about censorship, but to no avail. During his two nights of performing at Adelaide Town Hall, there were five songs which were off-limits. His audience knew those songs, and at one point he teasingly began to play one of them. Lehrer apparently quipped that South Australia had the “finest 18th century government in the world”.

Lehrer took it all in his stride, saying that having been “banned, censored, mentioned in several houses of parliament and threatened with arrest” was “the highlight of his life”.

tom lehrer discovers australiaThe tour resulted in an album of live recordings “Tom Lehrer discovers Australia (and vice versa)” (the cover shows him in a staring contest with a kangaroo). Lehrer also debuted a song that couldn’t be banned- “The Masochism Tango” (“I ache for the touch of your lips dear, but much more for the touch of your whips dear…”)

Aftermath

After Australia Lehrer briefly taught political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and presumably got confused with Noam Chomsky, who is exactly the same age.)

He then produced a flurry of brilliant topical songs for a short-lived satirical TV show called ‘That was the week that was’. The album (That Was the Year that Was’ covers smut, the teaching of ‘new math’ and – infamously – a song about the German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun (‘once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down, that’s not my department says Werhner von Braun’.)

And then – tired of touring, tired of singing the same songs, and with real life becoming ever less funny, Lehrer basically retired from performing. His last gig, in 1972, was a fundraiser for the doomed Presidential candidate George McGovern.

He then spent 40 years teaching math and American popular music at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In 1999 the British historian Martin Gilbert named Lehrer as one of the 10 great figures of the previous 100 years. “Lehrer was able to express and to expose, in humorous verse and lilting music, some of the most powerful dangers of the second half of the century … Many of the causes of which Lehrer sang became, three decades later, part of the main creative impulse of mankind,”

Indeed, for a man who hasn’t really performed since 1972, Lehrer’s fan-base remains enormous (full disclosure: my one appearance on the UK ‘Mastermind’ hinged on my specialist round -the songs of Tom Lehrer.)  In 2012, when the rapper 2 Chainz, a rapper, asked to sample “The Old Dope Peddler” in one of his tracks, Mr Lehrer was keen to help. “I grant you motherfuckers permission to do this,” he supposedly answered. “Please give my regards to Mr Chainz, or may I call him 2?”

So, to celebrate this man, have a trawl through his (remarkably small number of) songs.

I guarantee there will be something to delight, horrify and amuse, as you slide down the razor blade of life…