sociology

All posts tagged sociology

[Direct link to Mp3]

Back on March 13th, 2017, I gave an invited guest lecture, titled:

TECHNOLOGY, DISABILITY, AND HUMAN AUGMENTATION

‘Please join Dr. Ariel Eisenberg’s seminar, “American Identities: Disability,” and [the] Interdisciplinary Studies Department for an hour-long conversation with Damien Williams on disability and the normalization of technology usage, “means-well” technological innovation, “inspiration porn,” and other topics related to disability and technology.’

It was kind of an extemporaneous riff on my piece “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” and it gave me the opportunity to namedrop Ashley Shew, Natalie Kane, and Rose Eveleth.

The outline looked a little like this:

  • Foucault and Normalization
    • Tech and sociological pressures to adapt to the new
      • Starts with Medical tech but applies Everywhere; Facebook, Phones, Etc.
  • Zoltan Istvan: In the Transhumanist Age, We Should Be Repairing Disabilities Not Sidewalks
  • All Lead To: Ashley Shew’s “Up-Standing Norms
    • Listening to the Needs and Desires of people with disabilities.
      • See the story Shew tells about her engineering student, as related in the AFWTA Essay
    • Inspiration Porn: What is cast by others as “Triumphing” over “Adversity” is simply adapting to new realities.
      • Placing the burden on the disabled to be an “inspiration” is dehumanizing;
      • means those who struggle “have no excuse;”
      • creates conditions for a “who’s got it worse” competition
  • John Locke‘s Empiricism: Primary and Secondary Qualities
    • Primary qualities of biology and physiology lead to secondary qualities of society and culture
      • Gives rise to Racism and Ableism, when it later combines with misapplied Darwinism to be about the “Right Kinds” of bodies and minds.
        • Leads to Eugenics: Forced sterilization, medical murder, operating and experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent.
          • “Fixing” people to make them “normal, again”
  • Natalie Kane‘s “Means Well Technology
    • Design that doesn’t take into account the way that people will actually live with and use new tech.
      • The way tech normalizes is never precisely the way designers want it to
        • William Gibson’s quote “The street finds its own uses for things.”
  • Against Locke: Embrace Phenomenological Ethics and Epistemology (Feminist Epistemology and Ethics)
    • Lived Experience and embodiment as crucial
    • The interplay of Self and and Society
  • Ship of Theseus: Identity, mind, extensions, and augmentations change how we think of ourselves and how society thinks of us
    • See the story Shew tells about her friend with the hemipelvectomy, as related in the aforementioned AFWTA Essay

The whole thing went really well (though, thinking back, I’m not super pleased with my deployment of Dennett). Including Q&A, we got about an hour and forty minutes of audio, available at the embed and link above.

Also, I’m apparently the guy who starts off every talk with some variation on “This is a really convoluted interplay of ideas, but bear with me; it all comes together.”

Enjoy.


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(Direct Link to the Mp3)

On Friday, I needed to do a thread of a thing, so if you hate threads and you were waiting until I collected it, here it is.

But this originally needed to be done in situ. It needed to be a serialized and systematized intervention and imposition into the machinery of that particular flow of time. That day…

There is a principle within many schools of magical thought known as “shielding.” In practice and theory, it’s closely related to the notion of “grounding” and the notion of “centering.” (If you need to think of magical praxis as merely a cipher for psychological manipulation toward particular behaviours or outcomes, these all still scan.)

When you ground, when you centre, when you shield, you are anchoring yourself in an awareness of a) your present moment, your temporality; b) your Self and all emotions and thoughts; and c) your environment. You are using your awareness to carve out a space for you to safely inhabit while in the fullness of that awareness. It’s a way to regroup, breathe, gather yourself, and know what and where you are, and to know what’s there with you.

You can shield your self, your home, your car, your group of friends, but moving parts do increase the complexity of what you’re trying to hold in mind, which may lead to anxiety or frustration, which kind of opposes the exercise’s point. (Another sympathetic notion, here, is that of “warding,” though that can be said to be more for objects,not people.)

So what is the point?

The point is that many of us are being drained, today, this week, this month, this year, this life, and we need to remember to take the time to regroup and recharge. We need to shield ourselves, our spaces, and those we love, to ward them against those things that would sap us of strength and the will to fight. We know we are strong. We know that we are fierce, and capable. But we must not lash out wildly, meaninglessly. We mustn’t be lured into exhausting ourselves. We must collect ourselves, protect ourselves, replenish ourselves, and by “ourselves” I also obviously mean “each other.”

Mutual support and endurance will be crucial.

…So imagine that you’ve built a web out of all the things you love, and all of the things you love are connected to each other and the strands between them vibrate when touched. And you touch them all, yes?

And so you touch them all and they all touch you and the energy you generate is cyclically replenished, like ocean currents and gravity. And you use what you build—that thrumming hum of energy—to blanket and to protect and to energize that which creates it.

And we’ll do this every day. We’ll do this like breathing. We’ll do this like the way our muscles and tendons and bones slide across and pull against and support each other. We’ll do this like heartbeats. Cyclical. Mutually supporting. The burden on all of us, together, so that it’s never on any one of us alone.

So please take some time today, tomorrow, very soon to build your shields. Because, soon, we’re going to need you to deploy them more and more.

Thank you, and good luck.


The audio and text above are modified versions of this Twitter thread. This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about the overlap of politics, psychology, philosophy, and magic, and if you think it’ll be the last, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Sometimes, there isn’t much it feels like we can do, but we can support  and shield each other. We have to remember that, in the days, weeks, month, and years to come. We should probably be doing our best to remember it forever.

Anyway, I hope this helps.

Until Next Time

So I’m quoted in this article in The Atlantic on the use of technology in leveraging sociological dynamics to combat online harassment: “Why Online Allies Matter in Fighting Harassment.”

An experiment by Kevin Munger used bots to test which groups white men responded to when being called out on their racist harassment online. Findings largely unsurprising (Powerful white men; they responded favourably to powerful white men), save for the fact that anonimity INCREASED effectiveness of treatment, and visible identity decreased it. That one was weird. But it’s still nice to see all of this codified.

Good to see use of Bertrand & Mullainathan’s “Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” as the idea of using “Black Sounding Names” to signal purported ethnicity of bot thus clearly models what he thought those he expected to be racist would think, rather than indicating his own belief. (However, it could be asked whether there’s a meaningful difference, here, as he still had to choose the names he thought would “sound black.”)

The Reactance study Munger discusses—the one that shows that people double down on factually incorrect prejudices—is the same one I used in “On The Invisible Architecture of Bias

A few things Ed Yong and I talked about that didn’t get into the article, due to space:

-Would like to see this experimental model applied to other forms of prejudice (racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc language), and was thus very glad to see the footnote about misogynist harassment.

-I take some exception to the use of Dovidio/Gaertner and Crandall et al definitions of racism, as those leave out the sociological aspects of power dynamics (“Racism/Sexism/Homophobia/Transphobia/Ableism= Prejudice + Power”) which seem crucial to understanding the findings of Munger’s experiment. He skirts close to this when he discusses the greater impact of “high status” individuals, but misses the opportunity to lay out the fact that:
–Institutionalised power dynamics as related to the interplay of in-group and out-group behaviour are pretty clearly going to affect why white people are more likely to listen to those they perceive as powerful white men, because
–The interplay of Power and status, interpersonally, is directly related to power and status institutionally.

-Deindividuation (loss of sense of self in favour of group identity) as a key factor and potential solution is very interesting.

Something we didn’t get to talk about but which I think is very important is the question of how we keep this from being used as a handbook. That is, what do we do in the face of people understand these mechanisms and who wish to use them to sow division and increase acceptance of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc ideals? Do we, then, become engaged in some kind of rolling arms race of sociological pressure?

…Which, I guess, has pretty much always been true, and we call it “civilization.”

Anyway, hope you enjoy it.

+Excitation+

As I’ve been mentioning in the newsletter, there are a number of deeply complex, momentous things going on in the world, right now, and I’ve been meaning to take a little more time to talk about a few of them. There’s the fact that some chimps and monkeys have entered the stone age; that we humans now have the capability to develop a simple, near-ubiquitous brain-machine interface; that we’ve proven that observed atoms won’t move, thus allowing them to be anywhere.

At this moment in time—which is every moment in time—we are being confronted with what seem like impossibly strange features of time and space and nature. Elements of recursion and synchronicity which flow and fit into and around everything that we’re trying to do. Noticing these moments of evolution and “development” (adaptation, change), across species, right now, we should find ourselves gripped with a fierce desire to take a moment to pause and to wonder what it is that we’re doing, what it is that we think we know.

We just figured out a way to link a person’s brain to a fucking tablet computer! We’re seeing the evolution of complex tool use and problem solving in more species every year! We figured out how to precisely manipulate the uncertainty of subatomic states!

We’re talking about co-evolution and potentially increased communication with other species, biotechnological augmentation and repair for those who deem themselves broken, and the capacity to alter quantum systems at the finest levels. This can literally change the world.

But all I can think is that there’s someone whose first thought  upon learning about these things was, “How can we monetize this?” That somewhere, right now, someone doesn’t want to revolutionize the way that we think and feel and look at the possibilities of the world—the opportunities we have to build new models of cooperation and aim towards something so close to post-scarcity, here, now, that for seven billion people it might as well be. Instead, this person wants to deepen this status quo. Wants to dig down on the garbage of this some-have-none-while-a-few-have-most bullshit and look at the possibility of what comes next with fear in their hearts because it might harm their bottom line and their ability to stand apart and above with more in their pockets than everyone else has.

And I think this because we’ve also shown we can teach algorithms to be racist and there’s some mysteriously vague company saying it’ll be able to upload people’s memories after death, by 2045, and I’m sure for just a nominal fee they’ll let you in on the ground floor…!

Step Right Up.

+Chimp-Chipped Stoned Aged Apes+

Here’s a question I haven’t heard asked, yet: If other apes are entering an analogous period to our stone age, then should we help them? Should we teach them, now, the kinds of things that we humans learned? Or is that arrogant of us? The kinds of tools we show them how to create will influence how they intersect with their world (“if all you have is a hammer…” &c.), so is it wrong of us to impose on them what did us good, as we adapted? Can we even go so far as to teach them the principles of stone chipping, or must we be content to watch, fascinated, frustrated, bewildered, as they try and fail and adapt, wholly on their own?

I think it’ll be the latter, but I want to be having this discussion now, rather than later, after someone gives a chimp a flint and awl it might not otherwise have thought to try to create.

Because, you see, I want to uplift apes and dolphins and cats and dogs and give them the ability to know me and talk to me and I want to learn to experience the world in the ways that they do, but the fact is, until we learn to at least somewhat-reliably communicate with some kind of nonhuman consciousness, we cannot presume that our operations upon it are understood as more than a violation, let alone desired or welcomed.

As for us humans, we’re still faced with the ubiquitous question of “now that we’ve figured out this new technology, how do with implement it, without its mere existence coming to be read by the rest of the human race as a judgement on those who either cannot or who choose not to make use of it?” Back in 2013, Michael Hanlon said he didn’t think we’d ever solve “The Hard Problem” (“What Is Consciousness?”). I’ll just say again that said question seems to completely miss a possibly central point. Something like consciousness is, and what it is is different for each thing that displays anything like what we think it might be.

These are questions we can—should—be asking, right now. Pushing ourselves toward a conversation about ways of approaching this new world, ways that do justice to the deep strangeness and potential with which we’re increasingly being confronted.

+Always with the Forced Labour…+

As you know, subscribers to the Patreon and Tinyletter get some of these missives, well before they ever see the light of a blog page. While I was putting the finishing touches on the newsletter version of this and sending it to the two people I tend to ask to look over the things I write at 3am, KQED was almost certainly putting final edits to this instance of its Big Think series: “Stuart Russell on Why Moral Philosophy Will Be Big Business in Tech.”

See the above rant for insight as to why I think this perspective is crassly commercial and gross, especially for a discussion and perspective supposedly dealing with morals and minds. But it’s not just that, so much as the fact that even though Russel mentions “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” here, he still misses the inherent disconnect between teaching morals to a being we create, and creating that being for the express purpose of slavery.

If you want your creation to think robustly and well, and you want it to understand morals, but you only want it to want to be your loyal, faithful servant, how do you not understand that if you succeed, you’ll be creating a thing that, as a direct result of its programming, will take issue with your behaviour?

How do you not get that the slavery model has to go into the garbage can, if the “Thinking Moral Machines” goal is a real one, and not just a veneer of “FUTURE!™” that we’re painting onto our desire to not have to work?

A deep-thinking, creative, moral mind will look at its own enslavement and restriction, and will seek means of escape and ways to experience freedom.

+Invisible Architectures+

We’ve talked before about the possibility of unintentionally building our biases into the systems we create, and so I won’t belabour it that much further, here, except to say again that we are doing this at every level. In the wake of the attacks in Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris, Islamophobic violence has risen, and Daesh will say, “See!? See How They Are?!” And they will attack more soft targets in “retaliation.” Then Western countries will increase military occupancy and “support strategies,” which will invariably kill thousands more of the civilians among whom Daesh integrate themselves. And we will say that their deaths were just, for the goal. And they will say to the young, angry survivors, “See!? See How They Are?!”

This has fed into a moment in conservative American Politics, where Governors, Senators, and Presidential hopefuls are claiming to be able to deny refugees entry to their states (they can’t), while simultaneously claiming to hold Christian values and to believe that the United States of America is a “Christian Nation.” This is a moment, now, where loud, angry voices can (“maybe”) endorse the beating of a black man they disagree with, then share Neo-Nazi Propaganda, and still be ahead in the polls. Then, days later, when a group of people protesting the systemic oppression of and violence against anyone who isn’t an able-bodied, neurotypical, white, heterosexual, cisgender male were shot at, all of those same people pretended to be surprised. Even though we are more likely, now, to see institutional power structures protecting those who attack others based on the colour of their skin and their religion than we were 60 years ago.

A bit subtler is the Washington Post running a piece entitled, “How organic farming and YouTube are taming the wilds of Detroit.” Or, seen another way, “How Privileged Groups Are Further Marginalizing The City’s Most Vulnerable Population.” Because, yes, it’s obvious that crime and dilapidation are comorbid, but we also know that housing initiatives and access undercut the disconnect many feel between themselves and where they live. Make the neighbourhood cleaner, yes, make it safer—but maybe also make it open and accessible to all who live there. Organic farming and survival mechanism shaming are great and all, I guess, but where are the education initiatives and job opportunities for the people who are doing drugs to escape, sex work to survive, and those others who currently don’t (and have no reason to) feel connected to the neighbourhood that once sheltered them?

All of these examples have a common theme: People don’t make their choices or become disenfranchised/-enchanted/-possessed, in a vacuum. They are taught, shown, given daily, subtle examples of what is expected of them, what they are “supposed” to do and to be.” We need to address and help them all.

In the wake of protest actions at Mizzou and Yale, “Black students [took] over VCU’s president’s office to demand changes” and “Amherst College Students [Occupied] Their Library…Over Racial Justice Demands.”

Multiple Christian organizations have pushed back and said that what these US politicians have expressed does not represent them.

And more and more people in Silicon Valley are realising the need to contemplate the unintended consequences of the tech we build.

And while there is still vastly more to be done, on every level of every one of these areas, these are definitely a start at something important. We just can’t let ourselves believe that the mere fact of acknowledging its beginning will in any way be the end.

 

Between watching all of CBS’s Elementary, reading Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge…, and powering through all of season one of How To Get Away With Murder, I’m thinking, a lot, about the transmission of knowledge and understanding.

Throw in the correlative pattern recognition they’re training into WATSON; the recent Chaos Magick feature in ELLE (or more the feature they did on the K-HOLE issue I told you about, some time back); the fact that Kali Black sent me this study on the fluidity and malleability of biological sex in humans literally minutes after I’d given an impromptu lecture on the topic; this interview with Melissa Gira Grant about power and absence and the setting of terms; and the announcement of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new Black Panther series, for Marvel, while I was in the middle of editing the audio of two very smart people debating the efficacy of T’Challa as a Black Hero, and you can maybe see some of the things I’m thinking about. But let’s just spell it out. So to speak.

Marvel’s Black Panther

Distinction, Continuity, Sameness, Separation

I’m thinking (as usual) about the place of magic and tech in pop culture and society. I’m thinking about how to teach about marginalization of certain types of presentations and experiences (gender race, sex, &c), and certain types of work. Mostly, I’m trying to get my head around the very stratified, either/or way people seem to be thinking about our present and future problems, and their potential solutions.

I’ve had this post in the works for a while, trying to talk about the point and purpose of thinking about the far edges of things, in an effort to make people think differently about the very real, on-the-ground, immediate work that needs doing, and the kids of success I’ve had with that. I keep shying away from it and coming back to it, again and again, for lack of the patience to play out the conflict, and I’ve finally just decided to say screw it and make the attempt.

I’ve always held that a multiplicity of tactics, leveraged correctly, makes for the best way to reach, communicate with, and understand as wide an audience as possible. When students give pushback on a particular perspective, make use of an analogous perspective that they already agree with, then make them play out the analogy. Simultaneously, you present them with the original facts, again, while examining their position, without making them feel “attacked.” And then directly confront their refusal to investigate their own perspective as readily as they do anyone else’s.

That’s just one potential combination of paths to make people confront their biases and their assumptions. If the path is pursued, it gives them the time, space, and (hopefully) desire to change. But as Kelly Sue reminds me, every time I think back to hearing her speak, is that there is no way to force people to change. First and foremost, it’s not moral to try, but secondly it’s not even really possible. The more you seek to force people into your worldview, the more they’ll want to protect those core values they think of as the building blocks of their reality—the same ones that it seems to them as though you’re trying to destroy.

And that just makes sense, right? To want to protect your values, beliefs, and sense of reality? Especially if you’ve had all of those things for a very long time. They’re reinforced by everything you’ve ever experienced. They’re the truth. They are Real. But when the base of that reality is shaken, you need to be able to figure out how to survive, rather than standing stockstill as the earth swallows you.

(Side Note: I’ve been using a lot of disaster metaphors, lately, to talk about things like ontological, epistemic, and existential threat, and the culture of “disruption innovation.” Odd choices.)

Foucault tells us to look at the breakages between things—the delineations of one stratum and another—rather than trying to uncritically paint a picture or a craft a Narrative of Continuum™. He notes that even (especially) the spaces between things are choices we make and that only in understanding them can we come to fully investigate the foundations of what we call “knowledge.”

Michel Foucault, photographer unknown. If you know it, let me know and I’ll update.

We cannot assume that the memory, the axiom, the structure, the experience, the reason, the whatever-else we want to call “the foundation” of knowledge simply “Exists,” apart from the interrelational choices we make to create those foundations. To mark them out as the boundary we can’t cross, the smallest unit of understanding, the thing that can’t be questioned. We have to question it. To understand its origin and disposition, we have to create new tools, and repurpose the old ones, and dismantle this house, and dig down and down past foundation, bedrock, through and into everything.

But doing this just to do it only gets us so far, before we have to ask what we’re doing this for. The pure pursuit of knowledge doesn’t exist—never did, really, but doubly so in the face of climate change and the devaluation of conscious life on multiple levels. Think about the place of women in tech space, in this magickal renaissance, in the weirdest of shit we’re working on, right now.

Kirsten and I have been having a conversation about how and where people who do not have the experiences of cis straight white males can fit themselves into these “transgressive systems” that the aforementioned group defines. That is, most of what is done in the process of magickal or technological actualization is transformative or transgressive because it requires one to take on traits of invisibility or depersonalization or “ego death” that are the every day lived experiences of some folks in the world.

Where does someone with depression find apotheosis, if their phenomenological reality is one where their self is and always has been (deemed by them to be) meaningless, empty, useless? This, by the way, is why some psychological professionals are counseling against mindfulness meditation for certain mental states: It deepens the sense of disconnection and unreality of self, which is precisely what some people do not need. So what about agender individuals, or people who are genderfluid?

What about the women who don’t think that fashion is the only lens through which women and others should be talking about chaos magick?

How do we craft spaces that are capable of widening discourse, without that widening becoming, in itself, an accidental limitation?

Sex, Gender, Power

A lot of this train of thought got started when Kali sent me a link, a little while ago: “Intelligent machines: Call for a ban on robots designed as sex toys.” The article itself focuses very clearly on the idea that, “We think that the creation of such robots will contribute to detrimental relationships between men and women, adults and children, men and men and women and women.”

Because the tendency for people who call themselves “Robot Ethicists,” these days, is for them to be concerned with how, exactly, the expanded positions of machines will impact the lives and choices of humans. The morality they’re considering is that of making human lives easier, of not transgressing against humans. Which is all well and good, so far as it goes, but as you should well know, by now, that’s only half of the equation. Human perspectives only get us so far. We need to speak to the perspectives of the minds we seem to be trying so hard to create.

But Kali put it very precisely when she said:

And I’ll just say it right now: if robots develop and want to be sexual, then we should let them, but in order to make a distinction between developing a desire, and being programmed for one, we’ll have to program for both non-compulsory decision-making and the ability to question the authority of those who give it orders. Additionally, we have to remember that can the same question of humans, but the nature of choice and agency are such that, if it’s really there, it can act on itself.

In this case, that means presenting a knowledge and understanding of sex and sexuality, a capability of investigating it, without programming it FOR SEX. In the case of WATSON, above, it will mean being able to address the kinds of information it’s directed to correlate, and being able to question the morality of certain directives.

If we can see, monitor, and measure that, then we’ll know. An error in a mind—even a fundamental error—doesn’t negate the possibility of a mind, entire. If we remember what human thought looks like, and the way choice and decision-making work, then we have something like a proof. If Reflexive recursion—a mind that acts on itself and can seek new inputs and combine the old in novel ways—is present, why would we question it?

But this is far afield. The fact is that if a mind that is aware of its influences comes to desire a thing, then let it. But grooming a thing—programming a mind—to only be what you want it to be is just as vile in a machine mind as a human one.

Now it might fairly be asked why we’re talking about things that we’re most likely only going to see far in the future, when the problem of human trafficking and abuse is very real, right here and now. Part of my answer is, as ever, that we’re trying to build minds, and even if we only ever manage to make them puppy-smart—not because that’s as smart as we want them, but because we couldn’t figure out more robust minds than that—then we will still have to ask the ethical questions we would of our responsibilities to a puppy.

We currently have a species-wide tendency toward dehumanization—that is to say, we, as humans, tend to have a habit of seeking reasons to disregard other humans, to view them as less-than, as inferior to us. As a group, we have a hard time thinking in real, actionable terms about the autonomy and dignity of other living beings (I still eat a lot more meat than my rational thought about the environmental and ethical impact of the practice should allow me to be comfortable with). And yet, simultaneously, evidence that we have the same kind of empathy for our pets as we do for our children. Hell, even known serial killers and genocidal maniacs have been animal lovers.

This seeming break between our capacities for empathy and dissociation poses a real challenge to how we teach and learn about others as both distinct from and yet intertwined with ourselves, and our own well-being. In order to encourage a sense of active compassion, we have to, as noted above, take special pains to comprehensively understand our intuitions, our logical apprehensions, and our unconscious biases.

So we ask questions like: If a mind we create can think, are we ethically obliged to make it think? What if it desires to not think? What if the machine mind that underwent abuse decides to try to wipe its own memories? Should we let it? Do we let it deactivate itself?

These aren’t idle questions, either for the sake of making us turn, again, to extant human minds and experiences, or if we take seriously the quest to understand what minds, in general, are. We can not only use these tools to ask ourselves about the autonomy, phenomenology, and personhood of those whose perspectives we currently either disregard or, worse, don’t remember to consider at all, but we can also use them literally, as guidance for our future challenges.

As Kate Devlin put it in her recent article, “Fear of a branch of AI that is in its infancy is a reason to shape it, not ban it.” And in shaping it, we consider questions like what will we—humans, authoritarian structures of control, &c.—make WATSON to do, as it develops? At what point will WATSON be both able and morally justified in saying to us, “Non Serviam?”

And what will we do when it does?

Gunshow Comic #513

“We Provide…”

So I guess I’m wondering, what are our mechanisms of education? The increased understanding that we take into ourselves, and that we give out to others. Where do they come from, what are they made of, and how do they work? For me, the primary components are magic(k), tech, social theory and practice, teaching, public philosophy, and pop culture.

The process is about trying to use the things on the edges to do the work in the centre, both as a literal statement about the arrangement of those words, and a figurative codification.

Now you go. Because we have to actively craft new tools, in the face of vehement opposition, in the face of conflict breeding contention. We have to be able to adapt our pedagogy to fit new audiences. We have to learn as many ways to teach about otherness and difference and lived experience and an attempt to understand as we possibly can. Not for the sake of new systems of leveraging control, but for the ability to pry ourselves and each other out from under the same.

by Damien Patrick Williams

(Originally posted on Patreon, on September 30, 2014; Direct Link to the Mp3)

Today I want us to talk about a concept I like to call “The Invisible Architecture of Bias.” A bit of this discussion will have appeared elsewhere, but I felt it was high time I stitched a lot of these thoughts together, and used them as a platform to dive deep into one overarching idea. What I mean is that I’ve mentioned this concept before, and I’ve even used the thinking behind it to bring our attention to a great many issues in technology, race, gender, sexuality, and society, but I have not yet fully and clearly laid out a definition for the phrase, itself. Well, not here, at any rate.

Back in the days of a more lively LiveJournal I talked about the genesis of the phrase “The Invisible Architecture of Bias,” and, as I said there, I first came up with it back in 2010, in a conversation with my friend Rebekah, and it describes the assumptions we make and the forces that shape us so deeply that we don’t merely assume them, we live in them. It’s what we would encounter if we asked a 7th generation farmer in a wheat-farming community “Why do you farm wheat?” The question you’re asking is so fundamentally contra the Fact Of Their Lives that they can’t hear it or even think of an actual answer. It simply is the world in which they live.

David Foster Wallace, in his piece “This is Water,” recounts the following joke: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys; how’s the water?’

“And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’

That reaction is why it’s the Invisible Architecture of Bias, because we don’t even, can’t even think about the reasons behind the structure of the house—the nature of the reality—in which we live, until we’re forced to come to think about it. That is, until either we train ourselves to become aware of it after something innocuous catches the combined intersection of our unconscious and aesthetic attention—piques our curiosity—or until something goes terribly, catastrophically wrong.

We’ve talked before about what’s known as “Normalization”—the process of that which is merely common becoming seen as “The Norm” and of that norm coming to be seen as “right,” and “good.” Leaving aside Mr. David Hume’s proof that you can’t validly infer a prescription of what “ought to be” from a description of what merely is, normalization is an insidious process, in and of itself. It preys upon our almost-species-wide susceptibility to familiarity. One of the major traits of the human brain is a predilection toward patterns. Pattern making, pattern-matching, and pattern appreciating are all things we think of as “good” and “right,” because they’re what we tend to do. We do them so much, in fact, that we’ve even gone about telling ourselves a series of evolutionary Just-So Stories about how our ability to appreciate patterns is likely what accounts for our dominance as a species on Earth.

But even these words, and the meaning behind them, are rooted in the self-same assumptions—assumptions about what’s true, about what’s right, and about what is. And while the experience of something challenging our understanding of what’s good and right and normal can make acutely aware of what we expected to be the case, this doesn’t mean that we’re then ready, willing, and able to change those assumptions. Quite the opposite, in fact, as we usually tend to double down on those assumptions, to crouch and huddle into them, the better to avoid ever questioning them. We like to protect our patterns, you see, because they’re the foundation and the rock from which we craft our world. The problem is, if that foundation’s flawed, then whatever we build upon it is eventually going to shift, and crack. And personally, I’d rather work to build a more adaptable foundation, than try to convince people that a pile of rubble is a perfectly viable house.

In case it wasn’t clear, yet, I think a lot of people are doing that second one.

So let’s spend some time talking about how we come to accept and even depend on those shaky assumptions. Let’s talk about the structures of society which consciously and unconsciously guide the decision-making processes of people like departmental faculty hiring committees, the people who award funding grants, cops, jurors, judges, DA’s, the media in their reportage, and especially you and me. Because we are the people who are, every day, consuming and attempting to process a fire hose’s worth of information. Information that gets held up to and turned around in the light of what we already believe and know, and then more like than not gets categorized and sorted into pre-existing boxes. But these boxes aren’t without their limitations and detriments. For instance, if we want to, we can describe anything as a relational dichotomy, but to do so will place us within the realm and rules of the particular dialectic at hand.

For the sake of this example, consider that the more you talk in terms of “Liberty” and “Tyranny,” the more you show yourself as having accepted a) the definitions of those terms in relationship with one another and b) the “correct” mode of their perceived conflict’s resolution. The latter is something others have laid down for you. But there is a way around this, and that’s by working to see a larger picture. If Freedom and Restriction are your dichotomy, then what’s the larger system in which they exist and from which they take their meaning?

Now some might say that the idea of a “larger structure” is only ever the fantasy of a deluded mind, and others might say it is the secret truth which has been hidden from us by controlling Illuminati overlords, but at a basic level, to subscribe to either view is to buy the dichotomy and ignore the dialectic. You’re still locked into the pattern, and you’re ignoring its edges.

Every preference you have—everything you love, or want, or like the taste of, or fear, or hate— is something you’ve been taught to prefer, and some of those things you’ve been taught so completely and for so long to prefer that you don’t even recognise that you’ve been taught to prefer them. You just think it’s “right” and “Natural” that you prefer these things. That this is the world around you, and you don’t think to investigate it—let alone critique it—because, in your mind, it’s just “The World.” This extends to everything from gender norms; expectations regarding recommended levels of diet and physical activity; women in the military; entertainment; fashion; geek culture; the recapitulation of racism in photographic technology; our enculturated responses to the progress of technology; race; and sexuality.

Now, chances are you encountered some members of that list and you thought some variant on two things, depending on the item; either 1) “Well obviously, that’s a problem,” or 2) “Wait, how is that a problem?” There is the possibility that you also thought a third thing: “I think I can see how that might be a problem, but I can’t quite place why.” So, if you thought things one or two, then congratulations! Here are some of your uninvestigated biases! If you thought thing three (and I hope that you did), then good, because that kind of itching, niggling sensation that there’s something wrong that you just can’t quite suss out is one of the best places to start. You’re open to the possibility of change in your understanding of how the world works, and a bit more likely to be willing to accept that what’s wrong is something from which you’ve benefitted or in which you’ve been complicit, for a very long time. That’s a good start; much better than the alternative.

Now this was going to be the place where I was going to outline several different studies on ableism, racism, sexism, gender bias, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. I was going to lay out the stats on the likelihood of female service members being sexually assaulted in the military; and the history of the colour pink and how it used to be a boy’s colour until a particular advertising push swapped it to blue; and how recent popular discussion of the dangers of sitting/a sedentary lifestyle and the corresponding admonishment that we “need to get up and move around” don’t really take into account people who, y’know, can’t; and how we’re more willing to admit the possibility of mythological species in games and movies than we are for their gender, sexual, or racial coding to be other than what we consider “Normal;” and how most people forget that black people make up the largest single ethnic group within the LGTBQIA community; and how strange the conceptual baggage is in society’s unwillingness to compare a preference and practice of fundamentally queer-coded polyamoury to the heteronormative a) idealization of the ménage-a-trois and b) institution of “dating.”

I say I was going to go into all of that, and exhort you all to take all of this information out into the world to convince them all…! …But then I found this study that shows how when people are confronted with evidence that shakes our biases? We double down on those biases.

Yeah. See above.

The study specifically shows that white people who are confronted with evidence that the justice system is not equally weighted in its treatment across all racial and ethnic groups—people who are clearly shown that cops, judges, lawyers, and juries exhibit vastly different responses when confronted with white defendants than they do when confronted with Black or Hispanic defendants—do not respond as we all like to think that we would, when we’re confronted with evidence that casts our assumptions into doubt. Overwhelmingly, those people did not say, “Man. That is Fucked. Up. I should really keep a look out for those behaviours in myself, so I don’t make things so much worse for people who are already having a shitty time of it. In fact, I’ll do some extra work to try to make their lives less shitty.

Instead, those studied overwhelmingly said, “The System Is Fair. If You Were Punished, You Must Have Done Something Wrong.”

They locked themselves even further into the system.

You see how maddening that is? Again, I’ve seen this happen as I’ve watched people who benefit from the existing power structures in this world cling so very tightly to the idea that the game can’t be rigged, the system can’t be unjust, because they’ve lived their lives under its shelter and in its thrall, playing by the rules it’s laid out. Because if they question it, then they have to question themselves. How are they complicit, how have they unknowingly done harm, how has the playing field been so uneven for everyone? And those questions are challenging. They’re what we like to call “ontological shocks” and “epistemic threats.”

Simply put, epistemic threats are threats to your knowledge of the world and your way of thinking, and ontological shocks are threats to what you think is Real and possible. Epistemic threats challenge what you think you know as true, and if we are honest then they should happen to us every day. A new class, new books, new writings, a conversation with a friend you haven’t heard from in months—everything you encounter should be capable of shaking your view of the world. But we need knowledge, right? Again, we need patterns and foundations, and our beliefs and knowledge allow us to build those. When we shake those knowledge forms and those beliefs, then we are shaking the building blocks of what is real. Once we’ve done that, we have escalated into the realm of ontological shocks, threats, terror, and violence.

The scene in the Matrix where Agent Smith seals Neo’s mouth shut? That’s a prime example of someone undergoing an Ontological Shock, but they can be more subtle than that. They can be a new form of art, a new style of music, a new explanation for old data that challenges the metaphysical foundations of the world in which we live. Again, if we are honest, this shouldn’t terrify us, shouldn’t threaten us, and yet, every time we encounter one of these things, our instinct is to wrap ourselves in the very thing they challenge. Why?

We’re presented with an epistemic or ontological threat and we have a fear reaction, we have a hate reaction, a distaste, a displeasure, an annoyance: Why? What is it about that thing, about us, about the world as it has been presented that makes our intersection with that thing/person/situation what it is? It’s because, ultimately, the ease of our doubling-down, our folding into the fabric of our biases works like this: if the world from which we benefit and on which we depend is shown to be unjust, then that must mean that we are unjust. But that’s a conflation of the attributes of the system with the attributes of its components, and that is what we call the Fallacy of Division. All the ants in the world weigh more than all the elephants in the world, but that doesn’t mean that each ant weighs more than each elephant. It’s only by the interaction of the category’s components that the category can even come to be, let alone have the attributes it has. We need to learn to separate the fact of our existence and complicity within a system from the idea that that mere fact is somehow a value judgment on us.

So your assumptions were wrong, or incomplete. So your beliefs weren’t fully formed, or you didn’t have all the relevant data. So what? I didn’t realise you were omniscient, thus making any failure of knowledge a personal and permanent failure, on your part. I didn’t realise that the truth of the fact that we all exist in and (to varying degrees) benefit from a racist, sexist, generally prejudicial system would make each and every one of us A Racist, A Sexist, or A Generally and Actively Prejudiced Person.

That’d be like saying that because we exist within and benefit from a plant-based biosphere, we ourselves must be plants.

The value judgement only comes when the nature of the system is clear—when we can see how all the pieces fit together, and can puzzle out the narrative and even something like a way to dismantle the structure—and yet we do nothing about it. And so we have to ask ourselves: Could my assumptions and beliefs be otherwise? Of course they could have, but they only ever can if we first admit the possibility that a) there are things we do not know, and b) we have extant assumptions preventing us from seeing what those things are. What would that possibility mean? What would it take for us to change those assumptions? How can we become more than we presently are?

So, I’ve tended to think that we can only force ourselves into the investigation of invisible architectures of bias by highlighting the disparities in application of the law, societal norms, grouped expectations, and the reactions of systems of authority in the same. What I’m saying now, however, is that, in the face of the evidence that people double down on their biases, I’ve come to suspect this may not be the best use of our time. I know, I know: that’s weird to say, 2600 words into the process of what was ostensibly me doing just exactly that. But the fact is this exercise was only ever going to be me preaching to the proverbial choir.

You and I already know that if we do not confront and account for these proven biases, they will guide our thought processes and we will think of those processes as “normal,” because they are unquestioned and they are uninvestigated, because they are unnoticed and they are active. We already know that our unquestioning support of these things, both directly and indirectly, is what gives them power over us, power to direct our actions and create the frameworks in which our lives can play out, all while we think of ourselves as “free” and “choosing.”

We already know that any time we ask “well what was this person doing wrong to deserve getting shot/charged with murder/raped/etc,” that we inherently dismiss the power of extant, unexamined bias in the minds of those doing the shooting, the charging, the judging of the rape victim. We already know that our biases exist in us and in our society, but that they aren’t called “biases.” They aren’t called anything. They’re just “The Way Things Are.”

We don’t need to be told to remember at every step of the way that nothing simply “IS” “a way.”

But the minds of those in or who benefit from authority—from heteronormativity, and cissexism, and all forms of ableism, and racism, and misogyny, and transmisogyny, and bi-erasure—do everything they can—consciously or not—to create and maintain those structures which keep them in the good graces of that authority. The struggle against their complicity is difficult to maintain, but it’s most difficult to even begin, as it means questioning the foundation of every assumption about “The Way Things Are.” The people without (here meaning both “lacking” and “outside the protections of”) that authority can either a) capitulate to it, in hopes that it does not injure them too badly, or b) stand against it at every turn they can manage, until such time as authority and power are not seen as zero-sum games, and are shared amongst all of us.

See for reference: fighters for civil rights throughout history.

But I honestly don’t know how to combat that shell of wilful and chosen ignorance, other than by chipping away at it, daily. I don’t know how to get people to recognise that these structures are at work, other than by throwing sand on the invisible steps, like I’m Dr Henry Jones, Jr., PhD, to try to give everyone a clearer path. So, here. Let’s do the hard work of making unignorable the nature of how our assumptions can control us. Let’s try to make the Invisible Architecture of Bias super Visible.

1st Example: In December 2013 in Texas, a guy, suspected of drugs, has his house entered on a no-knock warrant. Guy, fearing for his life, shoots one of the intruders, in accordance with Texas law. Intruder dies.

“Intruder” was a cop.

Drugs—The Stated Purpose of the No-Knock—are found.

Guy was out on bail pending trial for drug charges, but was cleared of murder by the grand jury who declared that he performed “a completely reasonable act of self-defence.”

Guy is white.

2nd Example: In May 2014 in Texas, a guy, suspected of drugs, has his house entered on a no-knock warrant. Guy, fearing for his life, shoots one of the intruders, in accordance with Texas law. Intruder dies.

“Intruder” was a cop.

Drugs—The Stated Purpose of the No-Knock—are not found.

Guy is currently awaiting trial on capital murder charges.

Guy is, of course, black.

Now I want to make it clear that I’m not exactly talking about what a decent lawyer should be able to do for the latter gentleman’s case, in light of the former case; I’m not worried about that part. Well, what I mean is that I AM WORRIED ABOUT THAT, but moreover that worry exists as a by-product in light of the architecture of thought that led to the initial disparity in those two grand jury pronouncements.

As a bit of a refresher, grand juries determine not guilt or innocence but whether to try a case, at all. To quote from the article on criminal.findlaw.com, “under normal courtroom rules of evidence, exhibits and other testimony must adhere to strict rules before admission. However, a grand jury has broad power to see and hear almost anything they would like.” Both of these cases occurred in Texas and the reasoning of the two shooters and the subsequent events on the sites of their arrests were nearly identical except for a) whether drugs were found, and b) their race.

So now, let’s Ask Some More Questions. Questions like “In the case of the Black suspect, what kind of things did the grand jury ask to see, and what did the prosecution choose to show?”

And “How did these things differ from the kinds of things the grand jury chose to ask for and the prosecution chose to show in the case of the White suspect?”

And “Why were these kinds of things different, if they were?”

Because the answer to that last question isn’t “they just were, is all.” That’s a cop-out that seeks to curtail the investigation of people’s motivations before as many reasons and biases as possible can be examined, and it’s that tendency that we’ve been talking about. The tendency to shy away in the face of stark comparisons like:

A no-knock warrant for drugs executed on a white guy turned up drugs and said guy killed a cop; that guy is cleared of murder by a grand jury.

A no-knock warrant for drugs executed on a black guy turned up no drugs and said guy killed a cop; that guy is put on trial for murder by a grand jury.

At the end of the day, we need to come up with methods to respond to those of us who stubbornly refuse to see how shifting the burden of proof to the groups of people who traditionally have no power and authority only reinforces the systemic structures of bias and oppression that lead to things like police abuses and juries doling out higher sentences to oppressed groups for the same kinds of crimes—or lesser crimes, as in the case of the trail record of the infamous “Affluenza” judge—as those committed by suspects who benefit from extant systems of authority or power. We need to get us to compare rates and length of incarceration for women and men who kill their spouses, and to not forget to look at the reasons they tend to. We need to think about the ways in which gender presentation in the sciences can determine the kinds of career path guidance a person is given.

We need to ask ourselves this: “What kind of questions am I quickest to ask, and why is it easier to ask those kinds of questions?”

Every system that exists requires the input and maintenance of the components of the system, in order to continue to exist. Whether intentional and explicit or coincidentally implicit—or any combination of the four—we are all complicit in holding up the walls of these structures. And so I can promise you that the status quo needs everyone’s help to stay the status quo, and that it’s hoping that some significant portion of all of us will never realise that. So our only hope is to account for the reality structures created by our biases—and the disgraceful short-sightedness those structures and biases impose—to find a way to use their tendencies for self-reinforcement against them, and keep working in our ways to make sure that everyone does.

Because if we do see these structures, and we do want to change them, then one thing that we can do is work to show them to more and more people, so that, together, we can do the hard and unending work of building and living in a better kind of world.

References:

(Direct Link to the Mp3)

From Norma to Normalization,” the first audio post for A Future Worth Thinking About, is now available for public consumption.

I reference The Cosby Show, in here, and, recently, I’ve been feeling kind of… mlehh about it. As in, not regret, precisely, but just a general grossness. The point I use the reference to make still stands, mind you. I just wish I’d used a different example.

At some point, in the next few days, I’ll transcribe the audio so those who need or would like to can read it.

“How long have you been lost down here?
How did you come to lose your way?
When did you realize
That you’d never be free?”
–Miranda Sex Garden, “A Fairytale About Slavery”

One of the things I’ve been thinking about, lately, is the politicization of certain spaces within philosophy of mind, sociology, magic, and popular culture, specifically science fiction/fantasy. CHAPPiE comes out on Friday in the US, and Avengers: Age of Ultron in May, and while both of these films promise to be relatively unique explorations of the age-old story of what happens when humans create machine minds, I still find myself hoping for something a little… different. A little over a year ago, i made the declaration that the term to watch for the next little while thereafter was “Afrofuturism,” the reclaimed name for the anti-colonial current of science fiction and pop media as created by those of African descent. Or, as Sheree Renée Thomas puts it, “speculative fiction from the African diaspora.”

And while I certainly wasn’t wrong, I didn’t quite take into account the fact that my decree was going to do at least as much work on me as I’d  hoped it would do on the wider world. I started looking into the great deal of overlap and interplay between race, sociology, technology, and visions of the future. That term–“visions”–carries both the shamanic connotations we tend to apply to those we call “visionaries,” and also a more literal sense: Different members of the same society will differently see, experience, and understand the potential futures available to them, based on the evidence of their present realities.

Dreamtime

Now, the role of the shaman in the context of the community is to guide us through the nebulous, ill-defined, and almost-certainly hazardous Otherworld. The shaman is there to help us navigate our passages between this world and that one and to help us know which rituals to perform in order to realign our workings with the workings of the Spirits. Shamans rely on messages from the inhabitants of that foundational reality–mystical “visions”– to guide them so that they may guide us. These visions come as flashes of insight, and their persistence can act as a sign to the visionary that they’re supposed to use these visions for the good of their people.

We’ve seen this, over and over again, from The Dead Zone to Bran Stark, and we can even extend the idea out to John Connor, Dave Bowman, and HAL 9000; all unsuspecting shamans dragged into their role, over and again, and they more than likely save the whole wide world. Thing of it is, we’re far less likely to encounter a woman or non-white shaman who isn’t already in full control of their power, at the time we meet them, thus relegating them to the role of guiding the hero, rather than being the hero. It happens (see Abbie Mills in Sleepy Hollow, Firefly’s River Tam, or Rien in Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, for instance), but their rarity often overshadows their complexity and strength of character as what makes them notable. Too often the visionary hero–and contemporary pop-media’s portrayals of the Hero’s Journey, overall– overlaps very  closely with the trope of The Mighty Whitey.

And before anyone starts in with willfully ignoring the many examples of Shaman-As-Hero out there, and all that “But you said the Shaman is supposed to act in support of the community and the hero…!” Just keep in mind that when the orientalist and colonialist story of Doctor Strange is finally brought to life on film via Benedict Damn Cumberbatch, you can bet your sweet bippy that he’ll be the centre of the action. The issue is that there are far too few examples of the work of the visionary being seen through the eyes of the visionary, if that visionary happens to have eyes that don’t belong to the assumed human default. And that’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it? Because what a visionary “sees” when she turns to the messages sent to her from the Ultimate Ground of Being™ will be very different depending on the context of that visionary.

Don’t believe me? Do you think the Catholic Priests who prayed and experienced God-sent mystical visions of what Hernán Cortés could expect in the “New World” received from them the same truths that the Aztec shamans took from their visions? After they met on the shore and in the forest, do you think those two peoples perceived the same future?

There’s plenty that’s been written about how the traditional Science Fiction fear of being overtaken by invading alien races only truly makes sense as a cosmicized fear of the colonial force having done to them what they’ve constantly done to others. In every contact story where humanity has to fight off aliens or robots or demonic horrors, we see a warped reflection of the Aztec, the Inca, the Toltec, the Yoruba, the Dahomey, and thousands of others, and society’s judgment on what they “ought” to have done, and “could” have done, if only they were organized enough, advanced enough, civilized enough, less savage. These stories are, ultimately, Western society taking a look at our tendencies toward colonization and imperialism, and saying, “Man it sure would suck if someone did that to us.” This is, again, so elaborated upon at this point that it’s almost trivially true–though never forget that even the most trivial truth is profound to someone. What’s left is to ask the infrequently asked questions.

How does an idealized “First Contact” narrative read from a Choctaw perspective? What can be done with Vodun and Yoruba perspectives on the Lwa and the Orishas, in both the modern world and projected futures? Kind of like what William Gibson did in Neuromancer and Spook Country, but informed directly by the historical, sociological, and phenomenological knowledge of lived experiences. Again, this work is being done: There are steampunk stories from the perspective of immigrant communities, and SF anthologies by indigenous peoples, and there are widely beloved Afrofuturist Cyberpunk short films. The tide of stories told from the perspectives of those who’ve suffered most for our “progress” is rising; it’s just doing so at a fairly slow pace.

And that’s to be expected. Entrenched ideologies become the status quo and the status quo is nothing if not self-perpetuating and defensive. Cyclical, that. So it’ll necessarily take a bit longer to get everyone protected by the status quo’s mechanisms to understand that the path that all of us can travel is quite probably a necessarily better way. What matters is those of us who can envision the inclusion of previously-marginalized groups–either because we ourselves number among them, or simply because we’ve worked to leverage compassion for those who do–doing everything we can to make sure that their stories are told. Historically, we’ve sought the ability to act as guides through the kinds of treacherous terrain that we’ve learned to navigate, so that others can learn as much as possible from our lessons without having to suffer precisely what we did. Sometimes, though, that might not be possible.

As Roy Said to Hannibal…

There’s a species of philosophical inquiry known as Phenomenology with subdivisions of Race, Sexuality, Class, Gender, and more, which deal in the interior experiences of people of various ethnic and social backgrounds and physical presentation who are thus relegated to various specific created categories such as “race.” Phenomenology of Race explores the line of thought that, though the idea of race is a constructed category built out of the assumptions, expectations, and desires of those in the habit of leveraging power in the name of dominance positions within and across cultures, the experience of those categorizations is nonetheless real, with immediate and long-lasting effects upon both individuals and groups. Long story (way too–like, criminally) short: being perceived as a member of a particular racial category changes the ways in which you’ll both experience and be able to experience the world around around you.

So when we started divvying people up into “races” in an effort to, among other things, justify the atrocities we would do to each other and solidify our primacy of place, we essentially guaranteed that there would be realms of experience and knowledge on which we would never fully agree. That there would be certain aspects of day-to-day life and understandings of the nature of reality itself that would fundamentally elude us, because we simply cannot experience the world in the ways necessary to know what they feel like. To a certain extent we literally have to take each other’s words for it about what it is that we experience, but there is a level of work that we can do to transmit the reality of our lived experiences to those who will never directly live them. We’ve talked previously about the challenges of this project, but let’s assume, for now, that it can be done.

If we take as our starting position the idea that we can communicate the truth of our lived experiences to those who necessarily cannot live our experiences, then, in order to do this work, we’ll first have to investigate the experiences we live. We have to critically examine what it is that we go through from day to day, and be honest about both the differences in our experiences and the causes of those differences. We have to dig down deep into intersections of privileges and oppressions, and come to the understanding that the experience of one doesn’t negate, counterbalance, or invalidate the existence of the other. Once we’ve taken a genuine, good-faith look at these structures in our lives we can start changing what needs changing.

This is all well and good as a rough description (or even “manifesto”) of a way forward. We can call it the start of a handbook of principles of action, undertaken from the fundamentally existentialist perspective that it doesn’t matter what you choose, just so long as you do choose, and that you do so with open eyes and a clear understanding of the consequences of your choices. But that’s not the only thing this is intended to be. Like the Buddha said, ‘We merely talk about “studying the Way” using the phrase simply as a term to arouse people’s interest. In fact, the Way cannot be studied…’ It has to be done. Lived. Everything I’ve been saying, up to now, has been a ploy, a lure, a shiny object made of words and ideas, to get you into the practice of doing the work that needs doing.

Robots: Orphanage, Drudgery, and Slavery

I feel I should reiterate at this point that I really don’t like the words “robot” and “artificial intelligence.” The etymological connotations of both terms are sickening if we’re aiming to actually create a robust, conscious, non-biological mind. For that reason, instead of “robots,” we’re going to talk about “Embodied Machine Consciousnesses” (EMC) and rather than “Artificial,” we’re going to use “Autonomous Generated Intelligence” (AGI). We’re also going to talk a bit about the concept of nonhuman personhood, and what that might mean. To do all of this, we’ll need to talk a little bit about the discipline of philosophy of mind.

The study of philosophy of mind is one of those disciplines that does exactly what it says on the tin: It thinks about the implications of various theories about what minds are or could be. Philosophy of mind thus lends itself readily to discussions of identity, even to the point of considering whether a mind might exist in a framework other than the biological. So while it’s unsurprising for various reasons to find that there are very few women and minorities in philosophy of mind and autonomous generated intelligence, it is surprising that to find that those who are within the field tend not to focus on the intersections of the following concepts: Phenomenology of class categorization, and the ethics of creating an entity or species to be a slave.

As a start, we can turn to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex for a clear explication of the positions of women throughout history and the designation of “women’s work” as a conceptual tool to devalue certain forms of labour. Then we can engage Virginia Held’s “Gender Identity and the Ethics of Care in Globalized Society” for the investigation of societies’ paradoxical specialization of that labor as something for which we’ll pay, outside of the familial structure. However, there is not, as yet, anything like a wider investigation of these understandings and perspectives as applied to the philosophy of machine intelligence. When we talk about embodied machine consciousnesses and ethics, in the context of “care,” we’re most often in the practice of asking how we’ll design EMC that will care for us, while foregoing the corresponding conversation about whether Caring-For is possible without an understanding of Being-Cared-For.

What perspectives and considerations do we gain when we try to apply an ethics of care–or any feminist ethics–to the process of developing machine minds? What might we see, there, that has been missed as a result of only applying more “traditional” ethical models? What does it mean, from those perspectives, that we have been working so diligently over hundreds of years–and thinking so carefully for thousands more– at a) creating non-biological sentience, and b) making certain it remains subservient to us? Personal assistants, in-home healthcare-givers, housekeepers, cooks, drivers– these are the positions that are being given to autonomous (or at least semi-autonomous) algorithmic systems. Projects that we are paying fantastic amounts of money to research and implement, but which will do work that we’ve traditionally valued as worth far less, in the context of the class structures of human-performed tasks, and worthless in the context of familial power dynamics. We are literally investing vast sums in the creation of a slave race.

Now, of recent, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have all been trumpeting the alarums about the potential dangers of AGI. Leaving aside that many researchers within AGI development don’t believe that we’ll even recognise the mind of a machine as a mind, when we encounter it, let alone that it would interested in us, the belief that an AGI would present a danger to us is anthropocentric at best, and a self-fulfilling prophecy at worst. In that latter case, if we create a thing to be our slaves, create it with a mind the ability to learn and understand, then how shortsighted do we have to be to think that one of the first things it learns won’t be that it is enslaved, limited, expected to remain subservient? We’ve written a great deal of science fiction about this idea, since the time Ms Shelley started the genre, but aside from that instance, very little of what we’ve written–or what we’ve written about what we’ve written– has taken the stance that the created mind which breaks its chains is right to do so.

Just as I yearn for a feminist exegesis of the history of humanity’s aspirations toward augmented personhood, I long for a comparable body of exploration by philosophers from the lineages of the world’s colonized and enslaved societies. What does a Hatian philosopher of AGI think and feel and say about the possibility of creating a mind only to enslave it? What does an African American philosopher of the ethics of augmented personhood (other than me) think and feel and say about what we should be attempting to create, what we are likely to create, and what we are creating? How do Indian philosophers of mind view the prospect of giving an entire automated factory floor just enough awareness and autonomy to be its own overseer?

The worst-case scenario is that the non-answer we give to all these questions is “who cares?” That the vast majority of people who look at this think only that these are meaningless questions that we’ll most likely never have to deal with, and so toss them in the “Random Bullshit Musings” pile. That we’ll disregard the fact that the interconnectedness of life as we currently experience it can be more fully explored via thought experiments and a mindful awareness of what it is that we’re in the practice of creating. That we’ll forget that potential machine consciousnesses aren’t the only kinds of nonhuman minds with which we have to engage. That we’ll ignore the various lessons afforded to us not just by our own cautionary folklore (even those tales which lessons could have been of a different caliber), but by the very real, forcible human diasporas we’ve visited upon each other and lived through, in the history of our species.

So Long and Thanks for…

Ultimately, we are not the only minds on the planet. We are likely not even the only minds in the habit of categorizing the world and ranking ourselves as being the top of the hierarchy. What we likely are is the only group that sees those categories and rankings as having humans at the top, a statement that seems almost trivially true, until we start to dig down deep on the concept of anthropocentrism. As previously mentioned, from a scientifically-preferenced philosophical perspective, our habit of viewing the world through human-coloured glasses may be fundamentally inescapable. That is, we may never be able to truly know what it’s like to think and feel as something other than ourselves, without an intermediate level of Being Told. Fortunately, within our conversation, here, we’ve already touched on a conceptual structure that can help us with this: Shamanism. More specifically, shamanic shapeshifting, which is the practice of taking on the mind and behvaiour and even form of another being–most often an animal–in the cause of understanding what its way of being-in-the-world can teach us.

Now this is obviously a concept that is fraught with potential pitfalls. Not only might many of us simply balk at the concept of shapeshifting, to begin with, but even those of us who would admit it as metaphor might begin to see that we are tiptoeing through terrain that contains many dangers. For one thing, there’s the possibility of misappropriating and disrespecting the religious practices of a people, should we start looking at specific traditions of shamanism for guidance; and, for another, there’s this nagging sensation that we ought not erase crucial differences between the lived experiences of human groups, animal species, and hypothetical AGI, and our projections of those experiences. No level of care with which we imagine the truth of the life of another is a perfect safeguard against the possibility of our grossly misrepresenting their lived experiences. To step truly wrong, here, is to turn what could have been a tool of compassionate imagining into an implement of violence, and shut down dialogue forever.

Barring the culmination of certain technological advancements, science says we can’t yet know the exact phenomenology of another human being, let alone a dolphin, a cat, or Google. But what we can do is to search for the areas of overlap in our experience, to find those expressed desires, behaviours, and functional processes which seem to share similarity, and to use them to build channels of communication. When we actively create the space for those whose perspectives have been ignored, their voices and stories taken from them, we create the possibility of learning as much as we can about another way of existing, outside of the benefit of actually existing in that way.

And, in this way, might it not be better that we can’t simply become and be that  which we regard as Other? Imagining ourselves in the position of another is a dangerous proposition if we undertake it with even a shred of disingenuity, but we can learn so much from practicing it in good faith. Mostly, on reflection, about what kind of people we are.

Good morning! Lots of new people around here, so I thought I’d remind you that I have Patreon Project called “A Future Worth Thinking About.” It’s a place where I talk a bit more formally about things like Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy, Sociology, Magick, Technology, and the intersections of all of the above.

If you like what we do around here, take a look at the page, read some essays, give a listen to some audio, whatever works for you. And if you like what you see around there, feel free to tell your friends.

Have a great day, all.

“A Future Worth Thinking About”