Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You is an important and engaging un-telling of racism. If you find yourself home with young readers over the coming days, giving it a family read would be time well spent. Here’s why.
A year and a half ago, I was gifted Ibram X. Kendi‘s masterful history of racism in America (it is impossible to separate the two) Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. This masterpiece of history, like any critical work, keeps drawing me back. Like The Roots Things Fall Apart, or Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life there is something eternal about its truths. It hasn’t left our family desk since we got it; it is often read, often sampled (in the sense of those musical works) into the fabric of how we parse the world.
Kendi and Jason Reynolds have resampled Stamped from the Beginning, and have brought forth genius in Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.
History as Remix
Kendi and Reynolds say that this is not a history book
This is NOT a history book.
This is a book about the here and now.
A book to help us better understand why we are where we are.
A book about race.
I didn’t really understand that until now, even after a cursory read. The point is that the musical form remix gives you the context of the old — Killing Me Softly sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, sampled by the Fugees, sampled by… — but folds it into the reality of the here and now. In Stamped, the racist tropes of the past are sampled in and placed into the present. Jonathan Jackson is killed liberating while Black in 1971, like Tamir Rice is killed playing while Black in 2014, like Angela Davis is jailed thinking while Black in 1971…
But just like the Fugees live on re-sampled, the uncompromising feminism and anti-racism of Angela Davis is still fresh now. She’s still working actively to end a racialized injustice system. And so the strategies, analyses, actions can be re-sampled for generations to come.
History is dead, the remix is life.
There is deep magic at work in the pairing of Reynolds and Kendi. I’ve seen Reynolds speak at book fairs a couple of times and each time witnessed his amazing capacity to engage with youth — 5 year olds, 12 year olds, 20 somethings — in a way that respects their intellect and their capacity take on important and difficult subjects. There is no mystery why he is The U.S.’s National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. That respect and faith shines in award winning books like Ghost, As Brave As You, and The Boy in the Black Suit.
I know there are a lot — A LOT — of young people who hate reading. I know that many of these book haters are boys. I know that many of these book-hating boys, don’t actually hate books, they hate boredom. If you are reading this, and you happen to be one of these boys, first of all, you’re reading this so my master plan is already working (muahahahahahaha) and second of all, know that I feel you. I REALLY do. Because even though I’m a writer, I hate reading boring books too.
The voice of the book is that of a couple of older brothers or friends laying out the shape of how we got here. The voice is authentic, and even as a parent it called me back to the “old school” brothers who would share stories of their days in the movement, offering life advice for the here and now. It conjures up a call just the other day with my aunt who’s in her 80’s, weaving in stories of how her grandmother shielded her from the Klan with what has to be done now. Remix.
This commitment that both authors have to the educate, to make plain and to engage delivers a book that speaks on many levels and across audiences. They say that this is a Young Adult book, but it is probably the most accessible “made plain” text on racism in the United States that I have encountered.
Haters, Cowards, and Antiracists
In Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Kendi develops a quick categorization of attitudes or stances on racism that is kind of understandable by non-academics. Segregationists uphold the racial hierarchy, Assimilationists include a lot of us who go along to get along and remain silent and complicit; while Antiracists work to actively put in place a world of equality and justice. Antiracism for Kendi is a process, we all have a lot of baggage to work through. But still even this is deep for a literate, thinking, feeling adult to process.
In something on the order of 200 pages, they make this plain to all ages
Courage is the power of the mind to overcome fear.
On February 27th, Dr. Rediet Abebe gave a prescient talk at Georgia Tech. During her talk, entitled “Designing Algorithms for Social Good”, she gave highlights from a research career that has already produced remarkable results at the intersection of algorithms, optimization, and social computing.
The surreal portion of the talk came at the beginning, where she detailed algorithms for the distribution of social benefits that could be optimized to improve the chances that people on the margins survive and thrive in the face of shocks. Shocks like wars, recessions, or viral pandemics.
The slide above — “A Model of Welfare” — is taken from her paper Subsidy Allocations in the Presence of Income Shocks and speaks so directly to the plight of the millions of gig economy workers, restaurant staff, undocumented, underemployed and others whose very ability to find adequate food and shelter are endangered as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic compounds. In short, a humane and just welfare system has to account for the events that are likely to drive people on the margins — and millions who may consider themselves to be far from the margins — into poverty. With the increase income inequality and the looming impact of climate change and other threats, the reactive and piecemeal approaches to social welfare are clearly not up to the challenge.
The words of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative resonate: “The opposite of poverty is justice”. It would be an amazing world where the tools of computing were bent toward justice and equity. I hope that you’ll read Dr Abebe’s work, and ask your elected officials for justice. I hope that you contribute whatever you can to ease the burden of those around you.
Here’s a recent talk of Dr Abebe’s for inspiration
I think it’s a quick read, its format makes for an easy and effective skim. I didn’t have to work too hard to pull out useful nuggets. I think that a book has worth when you can get something useful from just a judicious browse. Check it out from your library, or you can check out some of Fogg’s Ted talks.
I’m sure that you have encountered the “habits” literature. There is a popular book Atomic Habits by James Clear, and there is blog by Leo Babauta named Zen Habits. The gist of the “habit formation” movement is that instead of trying to tackle some goal head on in one go – say getting healthy – you form a habit. You choose habits that are very easy to start and keep up. Something that incrementally moves you toward that goal. So a habit to get you to better health might be eating a vegetarian low calorie dinner every Friday night. Fogg has his own plan for habit formation and you can probably benefit without investing a lot of money in courses and such.
I don’t think there’s anything shockingly new here. My father would often say “Always from good habits”. He struggled with nicotine addiction and succumbed to cancer early. Knowing the importance of good habits is one thing, getting them going is another. There is something to getting your habits together.
What about tiny habits?
So here are a few reflections on Fogg’s book (I checked it out of the library) in no particular order.
I was first thrown off when I noticed it did not have a traditional index. I wanted to know if he had anything to say about procrastination: what tactics did he have to deal with getting into those tasks or projects that you aspire to ( a savings goal, reading a book, learning a language) but have a hard time getting to a first step. He actually talks about this in a chapter on Behavior Design – you have to make the behavior so easy to do that the factors separating you from doing it are removed.
Tackling the difficult step involves figuring out the why, what makes it difficult. He talks about a difficulty chain, but really you can just take some time to think through what makes a routine activity hard: cost? emotional effort? physical effort? Once you have an idea about what makes the behavior hard, you think through how to make it easier from that perspective. You can adjust the behavior to one that’s more in line with your current skills, read up on how to make it easier, or just reduce the complexity of the task (scale it back, find a simpler task to start with).
In lieu of an index, the book has a wealth of appendices. Flow charts in the appendix layout some of his processes for creating and sustaining habits. The “Tiny Habits for…” is nice – a collection of kinds of habits that might be good for particular aspirations (e.g. health). These aren’t earth shattering, but probably will give you some thoughts on get some of your difficult to-dos going.
I liked some of his habit formation suggestions – behavioral hacks lets call them.
While Waiting: Find those parts of your day while you are waiting around for stuff (he cites the example of deciding to floss while waiting for the shower to warm up).
His general method of looking for Prompts to cue some behavior is a good way of rethinking time and action.
The Behavior = Motivation Ability Prompt is a nice way of thinking through behavioral change.
How did I use it?
I now have figured that a can do 10 minutes of push ups or planks in the morning after or before a shower.
I learned that the time while the kids take their showers is a good time to get some work done on side projects – doing some more exploration of Haskell or deepening on abstractive summarization.
It’s easy to build routines around routines. If you eat dinner or go to bed at a set time, or go to work at a set time, it’s then easier to stick in a helpful routine before or after.
The other thing that seemed to address the “it’s insurmountable” feeling is finding Golden Behaviors. These are behaviors that:
Move you toward some aspiration or outcome.
Are things that you feel like doing
Things that you can do.
He talks through the exercise of listing behaviors that have high impact and are easy to do. Finding those behaviors that are easy to do or at least ones you can get enthusiastic about doing. This graphic captures it. The dimensions are degree of difficulty (x) and impact (y)
Try to find those actions that feel like they’re in the upper right hand — impactful and aren’t insurmountable. I guess you just experiment and tinker until you feel that you’re moving in some acceptable direction.
So I found Tiny Habits a quick and useful read. Check it out from your library, scan the appendix, do some reading around within it. Maybe there will be few points that you can make use of. Or maybe just view his Ted talk
Shoshana Zuboff’s 2019 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a powerful critique of the interplay between capitalism and Big Data. In about 700 pages pages, she makes a convincing argument that the very existence of human autonomy is under threat. In short, Dr. Zuboff is concerned that large companies have perfected a profit loop in which they collect immense amounts of data on consumer behavior, devise models that accurately predict behavior using that data, and then use those models to manipulate consumer behavior to drive profit. It is an intriguing and important read.
It defines several ways of thinking about the data collection and machine learning technologies at the core of this new surveillance capitalism. I think the book falls short in articulating a path forward, especially for people who work in the data industry.
If you’re a data scientist, analyst, or work in any of the myriad jobs behind this phenomenon, you might have concerns about how your 9-to-5 contributes to this mess. If so, you’ve probably asked yourself what to do – how to respond as an ethical, responsible, perhaps moral human being. I’ve put down some thoughts below, chime in if you’d like!
We need to name these things!
My partner always emphasizes that to address an issue, we need to be able to name it as precisely as possible. The devil hides in the details. To those of us with academic training particularly, we have the obligation to identify these names and make them accessible to our people – to make it plain as my grandmothers would say.
In that spirit, there are a few terms that I pulled from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism that helped me view commercial Big Data in a new light.
Rendition is the activity that we (or our ETL flows) engage in when we reduce the features and signals about some human activity or human to some set of observable features and use those features to completely describe the person or activity. We render their engagement with our landing page to the act of clicking, the number of milliseconds from rendering of the page to first clicks, the time spent scrolling, etc.
We render emotion using the straw of a signal that we get from our browser API. She talks about rendition of emotions, rendition of personal experience, rendition of social relations, and rendition of the self: all operations that reduce very rich and complex human activities to numbers.
Behavioral surplus refers to data collected which exceeds the amount required for the application or platform to complete the task at hand. You have an app that provides secure communication. A user happens to talk about a certain brand of sneakers a lot when they’re using your app. Capturing information about their shoe habits doesn’t have much to do with secure instant messaging, but you capture these interactions and share them with a data aggregator who in turn shares them with a shoe retailer. The behavioral surplus is the “sneaker interest”. Your app user who was counting on privacy and security knows that their trust was an illusion when ads for the exact shoes show up everywhere they look online. Maybe that user is undocumented. Maybe ICE shows up at the Foot Locker they shop at.
Instrumentarianism refers to a form of behavioral control, based on Behaviorist models of activity modification, enabled by large cross platform logging of online behavior, combined with predictive machine learning, combined with the capacity to conduct online behavioral experiments. The Instrumentarian regime knows enough about a given population, so that with some certainty C, when an action A is presented to this group, they will perform some behavior B. The regime can thus control this group with a given certainty. Because of the economies of scale, the Instrumentarian need only guarantee a small percentage of response to this stimuli to reap enormous profit.
The right to sanctuary is the human right to some place (real or virtual) that can be walled off from inspection. Surveillance capitalism, through always on devices, potentially removes all sense of sanctuary. Every conceivable space is monitored through “smart” bathroom scales, “smart” televisions, “smart” smoke alarms, robot vacuum cleaners. In this theory, any device is loaded with surplus sensing that reports on and records personal and social interaction far beyond the purpose of the device. That is, your Echo records you even though you might have just purchased it to play your favorite music. For the surveillance capitalist, the device more than pays for itself by providing precious behavioral insights that might have otherwise been hidden in “sanctuary”.
Holes in Zuboff’s analysis
As I was reading, I noticed three glaring oversights in Zuboff’s analysis.
Instrumentarianism is explicitly violent
Zuboff makes the claim that Instrumentarianism does not require violence for control. But I still leave her book with a concern about the potential for violence that Instrumentarianism and Surveillance Capitalism empowers. To quote from the announcement for the upcoming Data for Black Lives Conference
Our work is grounded in a clear call to action – to Abolish Big Data means to dismantle the structures that concentrate the power of data into the hands of a few. These structures are political, financial, and they are increasingly violent.
increasingly violent. We just have to reflect on the way in whic digital manipulation and capitalist interest have coalesced in state supported violence in support of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act The 2019 El Paso shooting or the complex interplay of anti-Black policing with surveillance technologies and corporate interests in tools like Amazon Rekognition illustrate the complex ways in which violence has and could play out in surveillance capitalism.
Impact upon the marginalized is profound
Zuboff does not discuss the ways in which surveillance capitalism is especially exploitative of marginalized populations. Absent was a discussion of how companies like Palantir and private prisons exploit the incarcerated, including asylum seekers. Absent was the discussion of how Instrumentarianism is particularly pernicious and violent with respect to marginalized populations including the homeless, the undocumented, communities of color, the poor, and LGBTQ communities. There are important voices that are startlingly absent in Zuboff’s analysis.
Data sharing can be empowering
Zuboff doesn’t like the idea of the “hive mind” — mass collection of patterns of activity. When people of a group commit to a collective model, it can be a source of empowerment. Many of the policing abuses were identified because everyday people were able to pool knowledge and data – shared spreadsheets documenting the high incidence of stop and frisk, shared cell phone videos of police shootings if innocent citizens. Class action lawsuits against workplace discrimination and the willingness of people to participate in studies to identify housing discrimination are two activities that come to mind in which a “hive mind” (the group discovery of adverse behavior on the grand scale) is able to benefit the individual and the community. I think that she is arguing for transparency – what are the power relationships that the technology is reinforcing – as opposed to the technology itself.
A plan for action
Articulating the answer to “where do we go from here” is where the book falls short. Zuboff claims (convincingly) that nothing less than human agency is at stake. As far as I could tell, Zuboff’s only suggestion is to trust that the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would come to our rescue. I think that’s too precious a right to trust just the GDPR.
So what to do?
Here are a few thoughts. Got more? Please chime in!
Unite and act
Ruha Benjamin in a recent talk cited an example of how students in a high school refused have their education mediated by a Facebook instructional platform. They demanded face to face instruction with human teachers and they refused to have all of their learning activity be rendered into the Facebook cloud. They lead a successful campaign for real instruction from real teachers and won. According to Benjamin, the most successful campaigns against surveillance capitalism require collective effort – the technology is too ubiquitous for the single individual to have much impact. A protest staged today at a dozen colleges against the use of facial recognition on campus emphasizes the power of collective action.
So you’re never too old or young or too math or technology challenged to act and make a difference. I think the most powerful “next step” is to think through what to do with your family, friends, neighbors, classmates, community. Start locally.
There are a host of recent books, articles, posts, and classes that provide a more complete view and history of how to deal with surveillance capitalism. A sampling includes:
The Detroit Community Technology Project along with other community organizations launched the Our Data Bodies Project which created a fascinating report Reclaiming Our Data that lays out concrete steps to reclaim personal and private data.
Computing is becoming more common in primary school, but in depth education on ethics and computing is still rare. It should be a central component of computing instruction. I’ve come across just a handful of classes on ethical design of data platforms. The topics usually appear in advanced classes or as the final lecture in course on machine learning or data science. Given the immense impact that even the simplest social app can have, we should advocate ethics having a central role in computer science and related fields. Talk to your friends in academia, the high schools and grade schools in your neighborhood. Or just…
A lot of the technology at the core of surveillance capitalism is available to everyday people in spreadsheet packages and cloud environments. The same tools and algorithms at the core of the surveillance regime can be “flipped” to identify and counter manipulative pricing, discriminatory and racist patterns. The groundbreaking work of Rediet Abebe demonstrates the potential of the good that can happen when the tools of data science are used by every day people to improve their lives.
Advocate for transparency and ethical deployment of software systems
Even inside Google, employees were able to advocate for model cards that explain to cloud service users how machine learning models are trained, how they might be biased. Google employees also raised questions about many of the company’s instrumentarianist practices. Certainly, advocating for transparency is one move that can insure that users are provided basic protections. There is still little in the way of openness and ethical training that is provided to users of online experimentation platforms like Optimizely
Build an inclusive workplace
People continue to argue that if we include the perspectives of the marginalized in the development of these platforms, we may be less prone to rush to deploy them in profoundly abusive ways. The presence of marginalized voices in the large surveillance companies remains at unrepresentative levels. Beyond hiring practices, we’ve yet to see wide-scale development of community governance structures implemented. As a data professional advocate for equity and inclusion.
Understand the humanity of your customers
It can be easy sometimes for the data professionals to think of “customers” as a probability distribution, a score, or a click. To use Zuboff’s terminology, our view of our social relationship with the people that use our systems have been subject to a kind of rendition as well. The data that you’re looking at makes it hard to associate a human being with those numbers, much less connect with one. Further, even if you are directly connected with a front end product (for example, making suggestions of videos to watch), you’re more often that not playing a game of aggregates – you’re looking at an abstraction of the actions of millions of people.
Surveillance Capitalism is a worthwhile read despite it’s flaws. We live in a critical time for data science and ultimately it will be up to all of us to determine what direction it takes.
On the first morning of Black History Month, 2020, an infant’s stroller faces a towering obelisk erected a century ago by white supremacists. Over a hundred years ago in 1908, confederate army veterans had constructed this object to venerate the Confederate States of America and mark the ascendence of white supremacist state governments throughout the South.
Off to the side of the image, the child’s parents discuss a historic marker that explains the racist history of the statue. The statue dwarfs the marker. I heard the child’s mother explaining (perhaps to friends or parents) the point of the smaller counter marker off to the side. The child’s parents are white as are the group of their friends gathered around the marker.
I took the photo during a morning run two weeks ago. I’ve been struggling to come to terms with what this image says for two weeks.
Are you as shook by this image as I am?
Why does Georgia, the South, the US still feel the need to pollute its public spaces in this way?
Some context, in case you need it
Over a hundred years ago, the hard won freedoms of Black people across the U.S. lay in shambles. A Civil War had been fought, over half a million soldiers had died, the Confederate States economy based upon human trafficking and forced labor (i.e. slavery) had ended. In a brief period of no more than 20 years after the Civil War, African Americans had tasted self determination and been allowed a partial sample of democracy. Yet starting in the mid-1870’s, their former unapologetic enslavers had again regained control of government, and consolidated a hold on national political power in the U.S. that would be unchecked for another century. These reactionaries led campaigns of terror on African American communities with the approval of the U.S. government, denying Black folk access to basic human rights. This was the world into which by great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents had been born into. I sometimes think of my grandfather’s grandfather, a Black Civil War veteran who had witnessed this arc of terror: from enslavement, a struggle against tyranny, to freedom; only to end his life little more than a slave.
In an act of brazen self-affirmation, one of these terrorist organizations, a group of Confederate Veterans formed by Clement A Evans erected a monument to the lost cause (perhaps then not so lost) of a racial state. My mother used to speak of how the Klan would hold rallies near this artifact, on their way to rallies at Georgia’s Stone Mountain (site of another racist edifice).
Over the last ten years, there have been renewed efforts to remove the monuments to the white supremacy state, reinvigorated by the need to respond to the tragedies of the Charleston Church Massacre the Charlottesville Rally. Memorials like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice provide examples of what a reconciliation process would look like. But these efforts in the state of Georgia have hit a roadblock — state law prohibits the removal of Lost Cause monuments. The NAACP, the Atlanta History Center, and other organizations of conscience have responded with efforts to contextualize these structures.
The marker that is next to the obelisk is one of the first attempts by Black people in Georgia to contextualize the Civil War monuments so pervasive in the South.
What’s wrong with keeping confederate monuments — they’re history?
I struggle to understand why anyone would want to preserve a monument to white supremacy in a public space with significant Black population.
What do you think?
I’ve heard it said (even by Black folk) that these markers are “history”, and that removing them amounts to “erasing history”.
If you think about it, this monument and others like it are not markers that identify significant events in the Civil War, or regional history: there are markers around Atlanta that described the Civil War battles, markers where Black churches were burned, markers where student lead sit-ins de-segregated restaurants. Rather this one and others like it, venerate The Lost Cause — no not the prospect of the Falcons winning a Superbowl — but the notion that there was a redeeming value in the Confederate States of America, a government created for the express purpose of maintaining a racist economic system built upon the mass enslavement, exploitation, and dehumanization of African Americans. The Lost Cause formed the ideological basis for the Klu Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations as well as of the governments that ruled the South. If you think about it, this “monument” and others like amount to a huge dis-information campaign. It is not history, it is anti-history.
This marker and it’s protection feels like a cause for concern on several levels: it was created by early 20th century racists to venerate the racist government of the 19th century; and it continues to be protected by a 21st century state government, thus reifying the support of a racial power hierarchy. It is a monument to the persistence of the racial state.
But what does it mean today?
But Georgia is different now that it was 100 years ago.
The U.S. representative for this area is Black, the city council of Decatur is diverse. My aunt, who moved to Decatur in the 1970’s remarks on how amazing it is that the space is now truly multiracial, almost overwhelmed with joy that the confederate vestiges are now being challenged. Most of the police officers I encounter any given day near the monument are Black. How would the confederate generals react knowing that episodes of the HBO series The Watchmen — whose lead is a Black woman and whose plot references a white supremacist terror attack in Oklahoma — is filmed feet from the site of the statue? As I drop by son off to the school near the state capital complex, I see staff and legislators that are a diverse representation of a state in which Black and Brown people comprise 40% of the population. Atlanta ranks as the third in the U.S. in terms of population that self-identify as LGBTQ. Georgia is sixth in terms of undocumented people. It is a diverse state, and further a state in which people of color have a say in government — Stacy Abrams, a Black woman, lost the most recent governors race by 1% of the vote.
So, things are changing. Is it enough simply to let “things take their course”?
Imagining a space for truth and healing
The dialog that took place between the child’s parent and friends is critical to building a livable future. I wish that I had stopped and asked her:
As a white person looking at this, how do you feel? Do you feel outrage, shame, indifference? What should be done?
It is dialog that makes “memorials” like this pertinent, relevant. We need ways to address the pain inherited from the past; naming the problems that we face today; and a starting point for calling the future we want into being.
What other ways are there to move forward?
In public spaces like this, once dominated by racism and centering oppression, a few ideas have come to mind.
What if the guides giving tours of the city were taught how to reframe and refocus away from the white settler oriented perspective currently given?
What if the city provided a Land Acknowledgement template for conferences and conventions that paid homage to the Indigenous guardians and first people of the land?
What if we made possible barcodes that allowed visitors to understand how the labor of the enslaved had contributed to the building of the city?
That there are so many spaces in the South that are beginning to peel back the layers of pain and silence is encouraging. A space to hear the stories of the still living elders that experienced terror first hand, a space to talk and come to terms with a path forward. It will require imagination and courage.
Imagining a future for our children
It’s easy to imagine that the child sitting in the carriage will witness the removal of the Lost Cause monument and others like it. It’s easy to imagine a future in which this same child is taught history in grade school that centers the stories of the Indigenous, LatinX, and Black people that are so central to the history and future of this county.
This outcome is not inevitable. Countries come to terms with their past inequity through engagement with it — we cannot wish a world into existence, maintaining it once we have it will be difficult. The past is still present for Black people in persistent health, education, and economic disparities. The past is present in persistent anti-Black policing. The past is present not that far from my doorstep. We have fully not excised these ghosts in white sheets.
I want to gift build a world for that child in which they would hold the racially just society as fundamental as air; in which that child would understand the crimes of the past and see as fundamental to their humanity to guard against it. Georgia and the other states in the South could be a birthing ground for a generation for which anti-racism is life. This world will not come from silence.
On this past Sunday, we marched in Decatur, GA in unity with millions others in India and across the world in opposition to India’s Citizen Amendment Act. To quote the Wikipedia article
The act was the first instance of religion being overtly used as a criterion for citizenship under Indian nationality law.
There are many complexities to the law. In summary, it means that Muslims freeing persecution are not eligible for refugee status. Most immediately, the bill would mean the exclusion of the 40,000 Rohingya Muslims who are fleeing genocide in Myanmar. It also impacts the perhaps tens of millions of Muslims who came to India in the years since the partition of 1947. Families that have lived in India for generations lack the documentation to substantiate their citizenship status (if you had to pack up and leave in an instant with the clothes on your back, documentation might be the least of your worries).
But it to say that combined with other recent legislation, it has the potential to make 100 million Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities stateless. This is an unprecedented human tragedy in the making.
It’s immediate impact has been the increase in violence against Muslims and those of all faiths and castes who support a state based upon tolerance and a respect for all humanity.
It was a blessing and gift for us to stand on the right side of history in support of human rights.
During the march there were a few tense moments. Our daughter was concerned about arrest. Thanks to the tremendous service of the de-escalation professionals on hand, our interactions with the police were constructive.
I reminded our daughter that right to assemble, even to drink Boba Tea when and where she chooses was earned by the sacrifices of children like her who had marched in Atlanta, Montgomery, Chicago, and other countless places. The following day was the “official” Martin Luther King holiday. We enjoyed tea and took a moment in John Lewis Plaza in Freedom Park to reflect.
The Bridge is a monument in Freedom Park memorializing the Civil Rights movement
I spent few hours this year participating as an organizer (some coordination of remote presenters and travel grants). The talks were streamed and recorded here.
There is a lot that I learned by participating and it was an honor to work with the brilliant people who made the conference happen — I wanted to share some of what I’ve been able to think through in hopes that there might be some nuggets of value.
The interesting stuff happens at the margins
When I first started in AI, it was an area that existed on the margin of computer science. Neural networks were on the margin of that margin. I think that there is a lot of freedom and creativity that comes when one is open to just think and experiment — there is also the pressure of proving the viability of your position. You can find real innovation being birthed if you look carefully. When you hear talks put all your assumptions into question, then you know that you’ve probably arrived at the right place.
What I found then at Black In AI was a lot of work questioning basic assumptions of a field which has moved from the margin to the spotlight (literally half of the commercial booths at the NeurIPS were hedge funds).
There are three talks (among many ) that stood out for me in this respect.
Abeba Birhane: Rethinking the Ethical Foundations of AI
I had the privilege of hearing Abeba Birhane who was deservedly awarded the Best Paper.
There is a lot of work on bias in machine learning models — for example Assessing Social and Intersectional Biases in Contextualized Word Representations was presented a few days after Birhane’s talk. A lot of the “solutions” in the fairness literature focus on de-biasing of the training and inference process. But Birhane’s talk called into question the point of de biasing algorithms, probing the intent of these algorithms. Is the point to present decision processes that are unfair as fair? Is the point really to reify structural oppression — to put lipstick on a pig (to borrow the title of one paper) ? She is searching for the voices of the marginalized in artificial intelligence and machine learning.
To take a concrete example, many companies are using the text.io app to rewrite job descriptions to have less gender bias. But maybe identifying the bias is really more an indicator of internal structural patterns of oppression? But how do you get companies to address the internal gender issues that give rise to these biased job descriptions to begin with?
Matthew Kinney — Defending Black Twitter from Deepfakes
There was Matthew Kinney’s talk “Creative Red Teaming: Approaches to Addressing Bias and Misuse in Machine Learning” — an approach using deep learning to safeguard internet platforms from misinformation campaigns.
Kinney began looking at the Internet Research Agency‘s disinformation effort when it became apparent that Black Twitter was being targeted as part of voter suppression efforts. Since BAI, we’ve seen similar campaigns launched in support of India’s Citizen Amendment Act and other repressive efforts — these campaigns are likely to be a constant this year, making Kinney’s work all the more critical.
Less you think that the disinformation campaigns are just about the use of video manipulation, Kinney makes the point that misinformation based upon text generators like Open AI’s GPT-2 can be more harmful.
Sara Menker: Data Science for Agriculture
One of the other impactful talks was by Sarah Menker, CEO of Gro Intelligence — a company that does agricultural analytics. I was interested in how the data science team in particular manages rapid response to develop models in response to rapidly changing weather and farming conditions and also how they deal with a team that is split across Kenya and New York.
There were a number oral presentations at BAI are around speech and language processing — particularly the development of technology to support support Amharic, Tigre, Yoruba, and other African languages. I spoke with the founder of a small startup Latan who is working on Tigre translation. Healthcare and agriculture applications featured prominently.
A number of presenters were not able to make it, mostly due to visa issues (details of this below). The diversity of their talks are indicative of the richness of the research community. Here’s a recording of Simba Nyatsanga’s talk on automatic video captioning
One of the many issues that Black In AI has tackled was transportation exclusion. Many researchers from from Africa, South America, and the Caribbean lack either the institutional or personal resources that would enable a trip to Canada (or other destinations where computing conferences are frequently held). A large part of BAI’s fund raising effort is about putting the resources together to bridge that gap — travel grants for presenters and other attendees also provide airfare and lodging. This makes BAI one of the most economically inclusive workshops.
All that said, an on-going challenge down to the last minute was getting presenters to the conference.
We had nearly 40 presenters denied visas right off. Most of these were reversed once senior IRCC officials reviewed the applications, but for many, it came too late, in some cases the day that the conference was to start. In large part, denials and subsequent reversals seemed to hinge on a political calculus. Senior officials only became involved after pressure from Wired and BBC articles and members of the House of Commons, and various high profile AI researchers.
My analysis is that Canada wants itself perceived as an inclusive country with a progressive visa policy and is planning on building AI as a growth industry. Although these values may not be shared by individual in-consular staff, or maybe even the AI programs used for visa screening. This isn’t much the case in the U.S., where policies are in open opposition to fair visa access to persons from Africa, Islamic countries, and other locations outside of Europe, the U.S, Canada, and Australia.
Despite the reversals, there were other unexpected visa conundrums. Several participants flying through South Africa had to be provided with alternate tickets to deal with not having transit visas for Hong Kong. Several Nigerian presenters were price gouged by Turkish Airlines when trying to get on their flights. That is, they were presented with additional substantial visa fees at the gate. The complaints of stemming from these policies resulted in last week’s suspension of Turkish Airlines in Nigeria. Conference organizers had to scramble to find alternate flights home for those who flew on Turkish Airlines. I give these anecdotes only to highlight the immense privileges that those of us in the U.S., EU, and Canada enjoy in having relatively open and worry free travel.
Planning Distributed conferences
Pulling off the Black in AI workshop itself was the epitome of a distributed team in action. As we began dealing with the problem of managing visa rejections in Brazil and Nigeria, or just managing hotel payments and livestreams highlighted the need for coordination and process. There is a lot of process knowledge that I feel is unique to making such a trans-national, inclusive (language, gender identity, diverging racial categorizations) work. I wondered about the best ways to capture and curate knowledge.
On Having Allies
I was encouraged to see individuals come together in sincere, and supportive ways to bring about a wider view of what global collaboration could be. The coordinated effort by people in Women In AI and LatinX in AI was amazing. The tireless, round the clock efforts by those both famous and invisible, the commitments to encouraging and supporting the emergence of new scholars, developers, artists, thinkers was uplifting in spite of so many other causes for concern. I don’t doubt that there is an AI bubble, or that in a few years the generative networks and transformers will be pedestrian as rice cookers or smoke alarms — less AI than just another kind of device or program. What I think is that getting people together from across the globe, really from across the globe — from across the economic and gender and racial divides — is really how important and unimagined change happens.