sociology

All posts tagged sociology

Last week, I talked to The Atlantic’s Ed Yong about new research in crowd sentiment tipping points, how it could give hope and dread for those working for social change, and how it might be used by bad actors to create/enhance already-extant sentiment-manipulation factories.

From the article:

…“You see this clump of failures below 25 percent and this clump of successes above 25 percent,” Centola says. “Mathematically, we predicted that, but seeing it in a real population was phenomenal.”

“What I think is happening at the threshold is that there’s a pretty high probability that a noncommitted actor”—a person who can be swayed in any direction—“will encounter a majority of committed minority actors, and flip to join them,” says Pamela Oliver, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “There is therefore a good probability that enough non-committed actors will all flip at the same time that the whole system will flip.”

We talked about a lot, and much of it didn’t make it into the article, but one of the things that matters most about all of this is that we’re going to have to be increasingly mindful and intentional about the information we take in. We now know that we have the ability to move the needle of conversation, with not too much effort, and with this knowledge we can make progressive social change. We can use this to fight against the despair that can so easily creep into this work of spreading compassion and trying to create a world where we can all flourish.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/65/Argentina_-_Mt_Tronador_Ascent_-_65_-_Casa%C3%B1o_Overa_glacier_%286834408616%29.jpg/640px-Argentina_-_Mt_Tronador_Ascent_-_65_-_Casa%C3%B1o_Overa_glacier_%286834408616%29.jpg

[Argentina’s Mt Tronador Casaño Overa glacier, by McKay Savage]

But we have to know that there will also be those who see this as a target number to hit so that hey might better disrupt and destabilize groups and beliefs. We already know that many such people are hard at work, trying to sow doubt and mistrust. We already have evidence that these actors will make other people’s lives unpleasant for the sake of it. With this new research, they’ll be encouraged, as well. As I said to Ed Yong:

“There are already a number of people out there who are gaming group dynamics in careful ways… If they know what target numbers they have to hit, it’s easy to see how they could take this information and create [or increase the output of the existing] sentiment-manipulation factory.”

The infiltration of progressive groups to move them toward chaos and internal strife is not news, just like the infiltration (and origin) of police and military groups by white supremacists is not news.

And so, while I don’t want to add to a world in which people feel like they have to continually mistrust each other, we do have to be intentional about the work we do, and how we do it, and we have to be mindful of who is trying to get us to believe what, and why they want us to believe it. Especially if we want to get others to believe as we do

This research gives us a useful set of tools and a good to place to start.

Until Next Time.

This weekend, Virginia Tech’s Center for the Humanities is hosting The Human Futures and Intelligent Machines Summit, and there is a link for the video cast of the events. You’ll need to Download and install Zoom, but it should be pretty straightforward, other than that.

You’ll find the full Schedule, below the cut.

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My piece “Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations,” a review of Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting has been up over at the Social Epistemology Research and Reply Collective for a few months, now, so I figured I should post something about it, here.

As you’ll read, I was extremely taken with Vallor’s book, and think it is a part of some very important work being done. From the piece:

Additionally, her crucial point seems to be that through intentional cultivation of the self and our society, or that through our personally grappling with these tasks, we can move the world, a stance which leaves out, for instance, notions of potential socioeconomic or political resistance to these moves. There are those with a vested interest in not having a more mindful and intentional technomoral ethos, because that would undercut how they make their money. However, it may be that this is Vallor’s intent.

The audience and goal for this book seems to be ethicists who will be persuaded to become philosophers of technology, who will then take up this book’s understandings and go speak to policy makers and entrepreneurs, who will then make changes in how they deal with the public. If this is the case, then there will already be a shared conceptual background between Vallor and many of the other scholars whom she intends to make help her to do the hard work of changing how people think about their values. But those philosophers will need a great deal more power, oversight authority, and influence to effectively advocate for and implement what Vallor suggests, here, and we’ll need sociopolitical mechanisms for making those valuative changes, as well.

[Image of the front cover of Shannon Vallor’s TECHNOLOGY AND THE VIRTUES. Circuit pathways in the shapes of trees.]

This is, as I said, one part of a larger, crucial project of bringing philosophy, the humanities, and social sciences into wide public conversation with technoscientific fields and developers. While there have always been others doing this work, it is increasingly the case that these folks are being both heeded and given institutional power and oversight authority.

As we continue the work of building these systems, and in the wake of all these recent events, more and more like this will be necessary.

Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting is out in paperback, June 1st, 2018. Read the rest of “Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective.

So by now you’re likely to have encountered something about the NYT Op-Ed Piece calling for a field of study that focuses on the impact of AI and algorithmic systems, a stance that elides the existence of not only communications and media studies people who focus on this work, but the whole entire disciplines of Philosophy of Technology and STS (rendered variously as “Science and Technology Studies” or “Science Technology and Society,” depending on a number of factors, but if you talk about STS, you’ll get responses from all of the above, about the same topics). While Dr. O’Neil has since tried to reframe this editorial as a call for businesses, governments, and the public to pay more attention to those people and groups, many have observed that such an argument exists nowhere in the article itself. Instead what we have is lines like academics (seemingly especially those in the humanities) are “asleep at the wheel.”

Instead of “asleep at the wheel” try “painfully awake on the side of the road at 5am in a part of town lyft and uber won’t come to, trying to flag down a taxi driver or hitchhike or any damn thing just please let me make this meeting so they can understand some part of what needs to be done.”* The former ultimately frames the humanities’ and liberal arts’ lack of currency and access as “well why aren’t you all speaking up more.” The latter gets more to the heart of “I’m sorry we don’t fund your departments or engage with your research or damn near ever heed your recommendations that must be so annoying for you oh my gosh.”

But Dr O’Neil is not the only one to write or say something along these lines—that there is somehow no one, or should be someone out here doing the work of investigating algorithmic bias, or infrastructure/engineering ethics, or any number of other things that people in philosophy of technology and STS are definitely already out here talking about. So I figured this would be, at the least, a good opportunity to share with you something discussing the relationship between science and technology, STS practitioners’ engagement with the public, and the public’s engagement of technoscience. Part 1 of who knows how many.

[Cover of the journal Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology]

The relationship between technology and science is one in which each intersects with, flows into, shapes, and affects the other. Not only this, but both science and technology shape and are shaped by the culture in which they arise and take part. Viewed through the lens of the readings we’ll discuss it becomes clear that many scientists and investigators at one time desired a clear-cut relationship between science and technology in which one flows from the other, with the properties of the subcategory being fully determined by those of the framing category, and sociocultural concerns play no part.

Many investigators still want this clarity and certainty, but in the time since sociologists, philosophers, historians, and other investigators from the humanities and so called soft sciences began looking at the history and contexts of the methods of science and technology, it has become clear that these latter activities do not work in an even and easily rendered way. When we look at the work of Sergio Sismondo, Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker, Madeline Akrich, and Langdon Winner, we can see that the social dimensions and intersections of science, culture, technology, and politics are and always have been crucially entwined.

In Winner’s seminal “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”(1980), we can see what counts as a major step forward along the path toward a model which takes seriously the social construction of science and technology, and the way in which we go about embedding our values, beliefs, and politics into the systems we make. On page 127, Winner states,

The things we call “technologies” are ways of building order in our world… Consciously or not, deliberately or inadvertently, societies choose structures for technologies that influence how people are going to work, communicate, travel, consume, [etc.]… In the processes by which structuring decisions are made, different people … possess unequal degrees of power [and] levels of awareness.

By this, Winner means to say that everything we do in the construction of the culture of scientific discovery and technological development is modulated by the sociocultural considerations that get built into them, and those constructed things go on to influence the nature of society, in turn. As a corollary to this, we can see a frame in which the elements within the frame—including science and technology—will influence and modulate each other, in the process of generating and being generated by the sociopolitical frame. Science will be affected by the tools it uses to make its discoveries, and the tools we use will be modulated and refined as our understandings change.

Pinch and Bijker write very clearly about the multidirectional interactions of science, technology, and society in their 1987 piece, [The Social Construction of Technological Systems,] using the history of the bicycle as their object of study. Through their investigation of the messy history of bicycles, “safety bicycles,” inflated rubber tires, bicycle racing, and PR ad copy, Pinch and Bijker show that science and technology aren’t clearly distinguished anymore, if they ever were. They show how scientific studies of safety were less influential on bicycle construction and adoption than the social perception [of] the devices, meaning that politics and public perception play a larger role in what gets studied, created, and adopted than we used to admit.

They go on to highlight a kind of multidirectionality and interpretive flexibility, which they say we achieve by looking at the different social groups that intersect with the technology, and the ways in which they do so (pg. 34). When we do this, we will see that each component group is concerned with different problems and solutions, and that each innovation made to address these concerns alters the landscape of the problem space. How we define the problem dictates the methods we will use and the technology that we create to seek a solution to it.

[Black and white figures comparing the frames of a Whippet Spring Frame bicycle (left) and a Singer Xtraordinary bicycle (right), from “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other” by Trevor J. Binch and Wiebe E. Bijker, 1987]


Akrich’s 1997 “The De-Scription of Technical Objects” (published, perhaps unsurprisingly, in a volume coedited by Bijker), engages the moral valences of technological intervention, and the distance between intent in design and “on the ground” usage. In her investigation of how people in Burkina Faso, French Polynesia, and elsewhere make use of technology such as generators and light boxes, we again see a complex interplay between the development of a scientific or technological process and the public adoption of it. On page 221 Akrich notes, “…the conversion of sociotechnical facts into facts pure and simple depends on the ability to turn technical objects into black boxes. In other words, as they become indispensable, objects also have to efface themselves.” That is, in order for the public to accept the scientific or technological interventions, those interventions had to become an invisible part of the framework of the public’s lives. Only when the public no longer had to think about these interventions did they become paradoxically “seen,” understood, as “good” science and technology.

In Sismondo’s “Science and Technology Studies and an Engaged Program” (2008) he spends some time discussing the social constructivist position that we’ve begun laying out, above—the perspective that everything we do and all the results we obtain from the modality of “the sciences” are constructed in part by that mode. Again, this would mean that “constructed” would describe both the data we organize out of what we observe, and what we initially observe at all. From page 15, “Not only data but phenomena themselves are constructed in laboratories—laboratories are places of work, and what is found in them is not nature but rather the product of much human effort.”

But Sismondo also says that this is only one half of the picture, then going on to discuss the ways in which funding models, public participation, and regulatory concerns can and do alter the development and deployment of science and technology. On page 19 he discusses a model developed in Denmark in the 1980’s:

Experts and stakeholders have opportunities to present information to the panel, but the lay group has full control over its report. The consensus conference process has been deemed a success for its ability to democratize technical decision-making without obviously sacrificing clarity and rationality, and it has been extended to other parts of Europe, Japan, and the United States…

This all merely highlights the fact that, if the public is going to be engaged, then the public ought to be as clear and critical as possible in its understanding of the exchanges that give rise to the science and technology on which they are asked to comment.

The non-scientific general public’s understanding of the relationship between science and technology is often characterized much as I described at the beginning of this essay. That is, it is often said that the public sees the relationship as a clear and clean move from scientific discoveries or breakthroughs to a device or other application of those principles. However, this casting does not take into account the variety of things that the public will often call technology, such as the Internet, mobile phone applications, autonomous cars, and more.

While there are scientific principles at play within each of those technologies, it still seems a bit bizarre to cast them merely as “applied science.” They are not all devices or other single physical instantiations of that application, and even those that are singular are the applications of multiple sciences, and also concrete expressions of social functions. Those concretions have particular psychological impacts, and philosophical implications, which need to be understood by both their users and their designers. Every part affects every other part, and each of those parts is necessarily filtered through human perspectives.

The general public needs to understand that every technology humans create will necessarily carry within it the hallmarks of human bias. Regardless of whether there is an objective reality at which science points, the sociocultural and sociopolitical frameworks in which science gets done will influence what gets investigated. Those same sociocultural and sociopolitical frameworks will shape the tools and instruments and systems—the technology—used to do that science. What gets done will then become a part of the scientific and technological landscape to which society and politics will then have to react. In order for the public to understand this, we have to educate about the history of science, the nature of social scientific methods, and the impact of implicit bias.

My own understanding of the relationship between science and technology is as I have outlined: A messy, tangled, multivalent interaction in which each component influences and is influenced by every other component, in near simultaneity. This framework requires a willingness to engage multiple perspectives and disciplines, and to perhaps reframe the normative project of science and technology to one that appreciates and encourages a multiplicity of perspectives, and no single direction of influence between science, technology and society. Once people understand this—that science and technology generate each other while influencing and being influenced by society—we do the work of engaging them in a nuanced and mindful way, working together to prevent the most egregious depredations of technoscientific development, or at least to agilely respond to them, as they arise.

But to do this, researchers in the humanities need to be heeded. In order to be heeded, people need to know that we exist, and that we have been doing this work for a very, very long time. The named field of Philosophy of Technology has been around for 70 years, and it in large parta foregrounded the concerns taken up and explored by STS. Here are just a few names of people to look at in this extensive history: Martin Heidegger, Bruno Latour, Don Ihde, Ian Hacking, Joe Pitt, and more recently, Ashley Shew, Shannon Vallor, Robin Zebrowski, John P. Sullins, John Flowers, Matt Brown, Shannon Conley, Lee Vinsel, Jacques Ellul, Andrew Feenberg, Batya Friedman, Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Rob Kling, Phil Agre, Lucy Suchman, Joanna Bryson, David Gunkel, so many others. Langdon Winner published “Do Artifacts Have Politics” 37 years ago. This episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, along with Shannon Vallor and Alistair Croll, has all of us talking about the public impact of the aforementioned.

What I’m saying is that many of us are trying to do the work, out here. Instead of pretending we don’t exist, try using large platforms (Like the NYT opinion page, and well read blogs) to highlight the very real work being attempted. I know for a fact the NYT has received submission articles about philosophy of tech and STS. Engage them. Discuss these topics in public, and know that there are many voices trying to grapple with and understand this world, and we have been, for a really damn long time.

So you see that we are still talking about learning and thinking in public. About how we go about getting people interested and engaged in the work of the technology that affects their lives. But there is a lot at the base of all this about what people think of as “science” or “expertise” and where they think that comes from, and what they think of those who engage in or have it. If we’re going to do this work, we have to be able to have conversations with people who not only don’t value what we do, but who think what we value is wrongheaded, or even evil. There is a lot going on in the world, right now, in regards to science and knowability. For instance, late last year there was a revelation about the widespread use of Dowsing by UK water firms (though if you ask anybody in the US, you’ll find it’s still in use, here, too).

And then this guy was trying to use systems of fluid dynamics and aeronautics to launch himself in a rocket to prove that the earth is flat and that science isn’t real. Yeah. And while there’s a much deeper conversation to be had here about whether the social construction of the category of “science” can be understood as distinct from a set of methodologies and formulae, but i really don’t think this guy is talking about having that conversation.

So let’s also think about the nature of how laboratory science is constructed, and what it can do for us.

In his 1983 “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Move The World,” Bruno Latour makes the claim that labs have their own agency. What Latour is asserting, here, is that the forces which coalesce within the framework of a lab become active agents in their own right. They are not merely subject to the social and political forces that go into their creation, but they are now active participants in the framing and reframing of those forces. He believes that the nature of inscription—the combined processes of condensing, translating, and transmitting methods, findings, and pieces of various knowledges—is a large part of what gives the laboratory this power, and he highlights this when he says:

The strength gained in the laboratory is not mysterious. A few people much weaker than epidemics can become stronger if they change the scale of the two actors—making the microbes big, and the epizootic small—and others dominate the events through the inscription devices that make each of the steps readable. The change of scale entails an acceleration in the number of inscriptions you can get. …[In] a year Pasteur could multiply anthrax outbreaks. No wonder that he became stronger than veterinarians. For every statistic they had, he could mobilize ten of them. (pg. 163—164)

This process of inscription is crucial for Latour; not just for the sake of what the laboratory can do of its own volition, but also because it is the mechanism by which scientists may come to understand and translate the values and concerns of another, which is, for him, the utmost value of science. In rendering the smallest things such as microbes and diseases legible on a large scale, and making largescale patterns individually understandable and reproducible, the presupposed distinctions of “macro” and “micro” are shown to be illusory. Latour believes that it is only through laboratory engagement that we can come to fully understand the complexities of these relationships (pg. 149).

When Latour begins laying out his project, he says sociological methods can offer science the tools to more clearly translate human concerns into a format with which science can grapple. “He who is able to translate others’ interests into his own language carries the day.” (pg. 144). However, in the process of detailing what it is that Pasteurian laboratory scientists do in engaging the various stakeholders in farms, agriculture, and veterinary medicine, it seems that he is has only described half of the project. Rather than merely translating the interests of others into our own language, evidence suggests that we must also translate our interests back into the language of our interlocutor.

So perhaps we can recast Latour’s statement as, “whomsoever is able to translate others’ interests into their own language and is equally able to translate their own interests into the language of another, carries the day.” Thus we see that the work done in the lab should allow scientists and technicians to increase the public’s understanding both of what it is that technoscience actually does and why it does it, by presenting material that can speak to many sets of values.

Karin Knorr-Cetina’s assertion in her 1995 article “Laboratory Studies: The Cultural Approach to the Study of Science” is that laboratory is an “enhanced” environment. In many ways this follows directly from Latour’s conceptualization of labs. Knorr-Cetina says that the constructed nature of the lab ‘“improves upon” the natural order,’ because said natural order is, in itself, malleable, and capable of being understood and rendered in a multiplicity of ways (pg. 9). If laboratories are never engaging the objects they study “as they occur in nature,” this means that labs are always in the process of shaping what they study, in order to better study it (ibid). This framing of the engagement of laboratory science is clarified when she says:

Detailed description [such as that done in laboratories] deconstructs—not out of an interest in critique but because it cannot but observe the intricate labor that goes into the creation of a solid entity, the countless nonsolid ingredients from which it derives, the confusion and negotiation that often lie at its origin, and the continued necessity of stabilizing and congealing. Constructionist studies have revealed the ordinary working of things that are black-boxed as “objective” facts and “given” entities, and they have uncovered the mundane processes behind systems that appear monolithic, awe inspiring, inevitable. (pg. 12)

Thus, the laboratory is one place in which the irregularities and messiness of the “natural world” are ordered in such a ways as to be able to be studied at all. However, Knorr-Cetina clarifies that “nothing epistemically special” is happening, in a lab (pg. 16). That is, while a laboratory helps us to better recognize nonhuman agents (“actants”) and forces at play in the creation of science, this is merely a fact of construction; everything that a scientist does in a lab is open to scrutiny and capable of being understood. If this is the case, then the “enhancement” gained via the conditions of the laboratory environment is merely a change in degree, rather than a difference in kind, as Latour seems to assert.

[Stock photo image of hundreds of scallops and two scallop fishers on the deck of a boat in the St Brieuc Bay.]

[Stock photo image of hundreds of scallops and two scallop fishers on the deck of a boat in the St Brieuc Bay.]


In addition to the above explorations of what the field of laboratory studies has to offer, we can also look at the works of Michel Callon and Sharon Traweek. Though primarily concerned with describing the network of actors and their concerns in St Brieuc Bay scallop-fishing and -farming industries, Callon’s investigation can be seen as example of Latour’s principle of bringing the laboratory out in the world, both in terms of the subjects of Callon’s investigation and the methods of those subjects. While Callon himself might disagree with this characterization, we can trace the process of selection and enframing of subjects and the investigation of their translation procedures, which we can see on page 20, when he says,

We know that the ingredients of controversies are a mixture of considerations concerning both Society and Nature. For this reason we require the observer to use a single repertoire when they are described. The vocabulary chosen for these descriptions and explanations can be left to the discretion of the observer. He cannot simply repeat the analysis suggested by the actors he is studying. (Callon, 1984)

In this way, we can better understand how laboratory techniques have become a component even of the study and description of laboratories.

When we look at a work like Sharon Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes, we can see that she finds value in bringing ethnographic methodologies into laboratory studies, and perhaps even laboratory settings. She discusses the history of the laboratory’s influence, arcing back to WWI and WWII, where scientists were tasked with coming up with more and better weapons, with their successes being used to push an ever-escalating arms race. As this process continued, the characteristics of what made a “good lab scientist” were defined and then continually reinforced, as being “someone who did science like those people over there.” In the building of the laboratory community, certain traits and behaviours become seen as ideal, those who do not match those traits and expectations are regarded as necessarily doing inferior work. She says,

The field worker’s goal, then, is to find out what the community takes to be knowledge, sensible action, and morality, as well as how its members account for unpredictable information, disturbing actions, and troubling motives. In my fieldwork I wanted to discover the physicists’ “common sense” world view, what everyone in the community knows, and what every newcomer needs to learn in order to act in a sensible way, in order to be taken seriously. (pg. 8)

And this is also the danger of focusing too closely on the laboratory: the potential for myopia, for thinking that the best or perhaps even only way to study the work of scientists is to render that work through the lens of the lab.

While the lab is a fantastic tool and studies of it provide great insight, we must remember that we can learn a great deal about science and technology via contexts other than that of the lab. While Latour argues that laboratory science actually destabilizes the inside-the-lab/outside-the-lab distinction by showing that the tools and methods of the lab can be brought anywhere out into the world, it can be said that the distinction is reinstantiated by our focusing on laboratories as the sole path to understand scientists. Much the same can be said for the insistence that systems engineers are the sole best examples of how to engage technological development. Thinking that labs are the only resource we have means that we will miss the behavior of researchers at conferences, retreats, in journal articles, and other places where the norms of the scientific community are inscribed and reinforced. It might not be the case that scientists understand themselves as creating community rules, in these fora, but this does not necessarily mean that they are not doing so.

The kinds of understandings a group has about themselves will not always align with what observations and descriptions might be gleaned from another’s investigation of that group, but this doesn’t mean that one of those has to be “right” or “true” while the other is “wrong” and “false.” The interest in studying a discipline should come not from that group’s “power” to “correctly” describe the world, but from understanding more about what it is about whatever group is under investigation that makes it itself. Rather than seeking a single correct perspective, we should instead embrace the idea that a multiplicity of perspectives might all be useful and beneficial, and then ask “To What End?”

We’re talking about Values, here. We’re talking about the question of why whatever it is that matters to you, matters to you. And how you can understand that other people have different values from each other, and we can all learn to talk about what we care about in a way that helps us understand each other. That’s not neutral, though. Even that can be turned against us, when it’s done in bad faith. And we have to understand why someone would want to do that, too.

[Direct link to Mp3]

[09/22/17: This post has been updated with a transcript, courtesy of Open Transcripts]

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.”

The audio transcript is below the cut. 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.

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