The Meaning in the Machine, The Prison Abolitionist’s Dream, Cardi B the Bronx Queen

This Week — the algorithmic age — with Moira Weigel, Ben Tarnoff, Nick Seaver, Kade Crockford, Rob Horning, and Helena Bassil-Morozow. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

We came up with the idea for this week’s show over coffee with our favorite tech duo — Moira Weigel and Ben Tarnoff, the super smart super couple behind Logic Magazine. We were getting into the weeds about the tech backlash and the changes in the facebook news feed, when Moira said — what about a show about the architecture of our algorithmic world? The idea was to demystify and clarify the technology that’s governing more and more of our lives and the ideas (and ideology) that’s mapped onto it. And to have some fun of course. We caught up on the Netflix sci fi show Black Mirror; we explored the metaphysics of social media, and Chris had a very trippy conversation with the mathematician Stephen Wolfram (available Monday for our Patreon patrons).

The IQ of the people in the studio was in the Mensa range, but the message was clear: remember that humans are behind that algorithm curtain, working for large private corporations. The machines can be reprogrammed to do what we want to them to; the game is up if we let them get away with “blame the algorithm.” So the danger is passivity, laziness even, as algorithms continue to make our lives easier. Ben Tarnoff reminds us that the platforms can be democratized to challenge their vast concentration of wealth and power.

Kade Crockford, who directs the Mass. ACLU’s Technology for Liberty program, also introduced us to the work of anti-surveillance artist Adam Harvey and discussed various ways in which surveillance algorithms can be (legally) “monkey wrenched”. Her biggest lesson was to not let ourselves confuse political problems for technological problems (and vice versa). Her major case study was a recent kerfuffle around Boston Public School’s start-time scheduling. After a MIT-designed algorithmic scheduling system forced many BPS parents and their parents to radically rearrange their daily schedules, some families began to blame the algorithm itself for the inconvenience. Yet this line of critique risks ignoring the underlying problems of political economy which influenced the algorithm’s logic.

Crockford and her Media Lab colleague Joi Ito recently dissected this issue in a Boston Globe titled “Don’t Blame the Algorithm for Doing What Boston Schools’ Asked”:

The new, algorithmically-generated school start times have left Boston parents asking whether the city is sacrificing their families’ needs to save public dollars.

We can imagine different scenarios producing vastly different results. For example, the city could crack down on the rate of Boston Police overtime expenditures, which totaled nearly $60 million in 2016. If city leaders reduced police overtime spending by as little as 8 percent a year, they could send students to school at developmentally appropriate times for all ages. Such a plan would enable high schools to start later without forcing elementary schools to start at 7:15, putting many families in a difficult situation. Doing so would require making different political decisions, creating different budgetary winners — and losers for whom no algorithm is likely to soothe the pain.

Algorithms, well designed, can solve problems and make things better. The important question is: Better for whom? That question needs to be decided in a transparent political process; otherwise, the algorithm will efficiently solve the wrong problem.

Listen: The Promise

Meribah Knight, the young woman who produced this podcast about a public housing project in Nashville, is an up and comer. It’s a terrific series. She’s also in the middle of her own #MeToo story and taking no prisoners.

Read: Dan Berger & Toussaint Loissier’s Rethinking the American Prison Movement

A small but growing number of Americans today are discussing the possibility of an abolitionist prison movement to end the American nightmare of mass incarceration. Many—even on the left—feel some discomfort in using the term “prison abolition,” but it’s an idea with real history behind it. Part of that history is traced in a new book by Dan Berger and Toussaint Loisier titled Rethinking the American Prison Movementa new entry in a series from Routledge on 20th century political and social movements in the U.S.

Both of the authors of the Routledge book identify as prison abolitionists. Loisier is a professor in the Afro-American Studies department at UMass Lowell who also made a name for himself as an activist grad student at the University of Chicago—fighting against housing eviction and for a proper trauma care center on the South Side of the city. Berger is a University of Washington professor who has emerged as one of the most thoughtful contemporary writers on mass incarceration—providing deep critiques of the mystification of mass incarceration in Ava Duvernay’s 13th, for instance, as well as covering contemporary movements like the #OperationPUSH prison strike in Florida. In a recent interview about the new book, Berger provides a clear statement of purpose for the prison abolitionist movement:

Abolitionism is one of several currents running through the prison movement. In the 1970s, several journalists, judges, politicians, faith communities and others joined radical activists in and out of prison in calling for the abolition of prisons. That demand was largely buried in the ensuing expansion of the prison system. Yet it never disappeared. It has resurfaced with increasing clarity in the last two decades of scholarship on and organizing against mass incarceration.

Abolition is a far-reaching demand. Abolitionists argue that prisons themselves constitute violence: they destroy lives and livelihoods, and offer neither accountability nor deterrence. Seen from that perspective, prisons cannot be reformed.

Rather, society needs to pursue alternative forms of justice. Abolitionists work to reduce the reliance on all aspects of the criminal justice system. They pursue a set of alternative measures to do so, including decriminalization of drugs and sex work, restorative or transformative justice for those that have caused harm, and the redirection of funds from policing and punishment to universal health care, quality public schools, and other necessary programs.

Prison abolitionists self-consciously draw upon the 19th century movement to abolish slavery, a movement that seemed small and incapable of winning up until it succeeded. While only one tendency within a larger movement, abolition exists as a beacon for larger social transformation. Abolition is an analysis that prisons do not make society safer and are themselves aggregators of violence. And so abolition is as much a positive demand for full employment, universal health care and the resources that keep people happy, healthy, and safe as it is a negative demand against prisons.

Berger and Loissier’s work is just one of several books which are now helping us rethink how we talk about mass incarceration. For more, check out Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, as well as other recent work from our past guests Heather Ann Thompson, Bruce Western, and Donna Murch.

The Quincy Jones interview in Vulture may have been the headline gossip story of the week, but there was another cultural Q&A which deserved more attention: a warm interview in CR Fashion Book between 21-year-old actress / singer Zendaya and the Bronx-born, Afro-Latina rapper, Cardi B (née Belcalis Almanzar):

Z: Is there anything that people don’t ever ask you that you want somebody to ask you?

CB: One thing that always bothers me is that people know so little about my culture. We are Caribbean people. And a lot of people be attacking me because they feel like I don’t be saying that I’m black. Some people want to decide if you’re black or not, depending on your skin complexion, because they don’t understand Caribbean people or our culture. I feel like people need to understand or get a passport and travel. I don’t got to tell you that I’m black. I expect you to know it. When my father taught me about Caribbean countries, he told me that these Europeans took over our lands … I expect people to understand that just because we’re not African American, we are still black. It’s still in our culture. Just like everybody else, we came over here the same fucking way. I hate when people try to take my roots from me. Because we know that there’s African roots inside of us. I really just want people to understand that the color that I have and features that I have are not from two white people fucking.

For more on the Queen of the Bronx, read Kara Brown on Cardi B’s style revolution

Misc. Links:

Marshall Steinbaum & Stephanie Kelton’s radical plan for ending student debt; Doug Henwood on the stock market panic (+ another word from Mark Blyth); Christian Appy on the ghosts Vietnam and the anti-war movement; Scott Kirsner on the wizards behind Boston’s biotech boom; John McWhorter on Trump’s speech patterns; Jia Tolentino on researching sex and abuse on campus; a behind-the-scenes look at the year of the NYT’s Daily podcast; Dave Zirin on the politics of The Eagles’ Super Bowl win (apologies, TB12 fans).

Til next week,

The Open Source Coders

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Radio Open Source

Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org