surveillance culture

All posts tagged surveillance culture

Hello Everyone.

Here is my prerecorded talk for the NC State R.L. Rabb Symposium on Embedding AI in Society.

There are captions in the video already, but I’ve also gone ahead and C/P’d the SRT text here, as well.

There were also two things I meant to mention, but failed to in the video:

1) The history of facial recognition and carceral surveillance being used against Black and Brown communities ties into work from Lundy Braun, Melissa N Stein, Seiberth et al., and myself on the medicalization and datafication of Black bodies without their consent, down through history. (Cf. Me, here: Fitting the description: historical and sociotechnical elements of facial recognition and anti-black surveillance”.)

2) Not only does GPT-3 fail to write about humanities-oriented topics with respect, it still can’t write about ISLAM AT ALL without writing in connotations of violence and hatred.

Also I somehow forgot to describe the slide with my email address and this website? What the hell Damien.


I’ve embedded the content of the resource slides in the transcript, but those are by no means all of the resources on this, just the most pertinent.

All of that begins below the cut.

 Black man with a mohawk and glasses, wearing a black button up shirt, a red paisley tie, a light grey check suit jacket, and black jeans, stands in front of two tall bookshelves full of books, one thin & red, one of wide untreated pine, and a large monitor with a printer and papers on the stand beneath it.

[First conference of the year; figured i might as well get gussied up.]

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Much of my research deals with the ways in which bodies are disciplined and how they go about resisting that discipline. In this piece, adapted from one of the answers to my PhD preliminary exams written and defended two months ago, I “name the disciplinary strategies that are used to control bodies and discuss the ways that bodies resist those strategies.” Additionally, I address how strategies of embodied control and resistance have changed over time, and how identifying and existing as a cyborg and/or an artificial intelligence can be understood as a strategy of control, resistance, or both.

In Jan Golinski’s Making Natural Knowledge, he spends some time discussing the different understandings of the word “discipline” and the role their transformations have played in the definition and transmission of knowledge as both artifacts and culture. In particular, he uses the space in section three of chapter two to discuss the role Foucault has played in historical understandings of knowledge, categorization, and disciplinarity. Using Foucault’s work in Discipline and Punish, we can draw an explicit connection between the various meanings “discipline” and ways that bodies are individually, culturally, and socially conditioned to fit particular modes of behavior, and the specific ways marginalized peoples are disciplined, relating to their various embodiments.

This will demonstrate how modes of observation and surveillance lead to certain types of embodiments being deemed “illegal” or otherwise unacceptable and thus further believed to be in need of methodologies of entrainment, correction, or reform in the form of psychological and physical torture, carceral punishment, and other means of institutionalization.

Locust, “Master and Servant (Depeche Mode Cover)”

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Below are the slides, audio, and transcripts for my talk “SFF and STS: Teaching Science, Technology, and Society via Pop Culture” given at the 2019 Conference for the Society for the Social Studies of Science, in early September.

(Cite as: Williams, Damien P. “SFF and STS: Teaching Science, Technology, and Society via Pop Culture,” talk given at the 2019 Conference for the Society for the Social Studies of Science, September 2019)

[Direct Link to the Mp3]

[Damien Patrick Williams]

Thank you, everybody, for being here. I’m going to stand a bit far back from this mic and project, I’m also probably going to pace a little bit. So if you can’t hear me, just let me know. This mic has ridiculously good pickup, so I don’t think that’ll be a problem.

So the conversation that we’re going to be having today is titled as “SFF and STS: Teaching Science, Technology, and Society via Pop Culture.”

I’m using the term “SFF” to stand for “science fiction and fantasy,” but we’re going to be looking at pop culture more broadly, because ultimately, though science fiction and fantasy have some of the most obvious entrees into discussions of STS and how making doing culture, society can influence technology and the history of fictional worlds can help students understand the worlds that they’re currently living in, pop Culture more generally, is going to tie into the things that students are going to care about in a way that I think is going to be kind of pertinent to what we’re going to be talking about today.

So why we are doing this:

Why are we teaching it with science fiction and fantasy? Why does this matter? I’ve been teaching off and on for 13 years, I’ve been teaching philosophy, I’ve been teaching religious studies, I’ve been teaching Science, Technology and Society. And I’ve been coming to understand as I’ve gone through my teaching process that not only do I like pop culture, my students do? Because they’re people and they’re embedded in culture. So that’s kind of shocking, I guess.

But what I’ve found is that one of the things that makes students care the absolute most about the things that you’re teaching them, especially when something can be as dry as logic, or can be as perhaps nebulous or unclear at first, I say engineering cultures, is that if you give them something to latch on to something that they are already from with, they will be more interested in it. If you can show to them at the outset, “hey, you’ve already been doing this, you’ve already been thinking about this, you’ve already encountered this, they will feel less reticent to engage with it.”

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Below are the slides, audio, and transcripts for my talk ‘”Any Sufficiently Advanced Neglect is Indistinguishable from Malice”: Assumptions and Bias in Algorithmic Systems,’ given at the 21st Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology, back in May 2019.

(Cite as: Williams, Damien P. ‘”Any Sufficiently Advanced Neglect is Indistinguishable from Malice”: Assumptions and Bias in Algorithmic Systems;’ talk given at the 21st Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology; May 2019)

Now, I’ve got a chapter coming out about this, soon, which I can provide as a preprint draft if you ask, and can be cited as “Constructing Situated and Social Knowledge: Ethical, Sociological, and Phenomenological Factors in Technological Design,” appearing in Philosophy And Engineering: Reimagining Technology And Social Progress. Guru Madhavan, Zachary Pirtle, and David Tomblin, eds. Forthcoming from Springer, 2019. But I wanted to get the words I said in this talk up onto some platforms where people can read them, as soon as possible, for a  couple of reasons.

First, the Current Occupants of the Oval Office have very recently taken the policy position that algorithms can’t be racist, something which they’ve done in direct response to things like Google’s Hate Speech-Detecting AI being biased against black people, and Amazon claiming that its facial recognition can identify fear, without ever accounting for, i dunno, cultural and individual differences in fear expression?

[Free vector image of a white, female-presenting person, from head to torso, with biometric facial recognition patterns on her face; incidentally, go try finding images—even illustrations—of a non-white person in a facial recognition context.]

All these things taken together are what made me finally go ahead and get the transcript of that talk done, and posted, because these are events and policy decisions about which I a) have been speaking and writing for years, and b) have specific inputs and recommendations about, and which are, c) frankly wrongheaded, and outright hateful.

And I want to spend time on it because I think what doesn’t get through in many of our discussions is that it’s not just about how Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, or Algorithmic instances get trained, but the processes for how and the cultural environments in which HUMANS are increasingly taught/shown/environmentally encouraged/socialized to think is the “right way” to build and train said systems.

That includes classes and instruction, it includes the institutional culture of the companies, it includes the policy landscape in which decisions about funding and get made, because that drives how people have to talk and write and think about the work they’re doing, and that constrains what they will even attempt to do or even understand.

All of this is cumulative, accreting into institutional epistemologies of algorithm creation. It is a structural and institutional problem.

So here are the Slides:

The Audio:

[Direct Link to Mp3]

And the Transcript is here below the cut:

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Previously, I told you about The Human Futures and Intelligent Machines Summit at Virginia Tech, and now that it’s over, I wanted to go ahead and put the full rundown of the events all in one place.

The goals for this summit were to start looking at the ways in which issues of algorithms, intelligent machine systems, human biotech, religion, surveillance, and more will intersect and affect us in the social, academic, political spheres. The big challenge in all of this was seen as getting better at dealing with this in the university and public policy sectors, in America, rather than the seeming worse we’ve gotten, so far.

Here’s the schedule. Full notes, below the cut.

Friday, June 8, 2018

  • Josh Brown on “the distinction between passive and active AI.”
  • Daylan Dufelmeier on “the potential ramifications of using advanced computing in the criminal justice arena…”
  • Mario Khreiche on the effects of automation, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and the Microlabor market.
  • Aaron Nicholson on how technological systems are used to support human social outcomes, specifically through the lens of policing  in the city of Atlanta
  • Ralph Hall on “the challenges society will face if current employment and income trends persist into the future.”
  • Jacob Thebault-Spieker on “how pro-urban and pro-wealth biases manifest in online systems, and  how this likely influences the ‘education’ of AI systems.”
  • Hani Awni on the sociopolitical of excluding ‘relational’ knowledge from AI systems.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

  • Chelsea Frazier on rethinking our understandings of race, biocentrism, and intelligence in relation to planetary sustainability and in the face of increasingly rapid technological advancement.
  • Ras Michael Brown on using the religions technologies of West Africa and the West African Diaspora to reframe how we think about “hybrid humanity.”
  • Damien Williams on how best to use interdisciplinary frameworks in the creation of machine intelligence and human biotechnological interventions.
  • Sara Mattingly-Jordan on the implications of the current global landscape in AI ethics regulation.
  • Kent Myers on several ways in which the intelligence community is engaging with human aspects of AI, from surveillance to sentiment analysis.
  • Emma Stamm on the idea that datafication of the self and what about us might be uncomputable.
  • Joshua Earle on “Morphological Freedom.”

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[Originally Published at Eris Magazine]

So Gabriel Roberts asked me to write something about police brutality, and I told him I needed a few days to get my head in order. The problem being that, with this particular topic, the longer I wait on this, the longer I want to wait on this, until, eventually, the avoidance becomes easier than the approach by several orders of magnitude.

Part of this is that I’m trying to think of something new worth saying, because I’ve already talked about these conditions, over at A Future Worth Thinking About. We talked about this in “On The Invisible Architecture of Bias,” “Any Sufficiently Advanced Police State…,” “On the Moral, Legal, and Social Implications of the Rearing and Development of Nascent Machine Intelligences,” and most recently in “On the European Union’s “Electronic Personhood” Proposal.” In these articles, I briefly outlined the history of systemic bias within many human social structures, and the possibility and likelihood of that bias translating into our technological advancements, such as algorithmic learning systems, use of and even access to police body camera footage, and the development of so-called artificial intelligence.

Long story short, the endemic nature of implicit bias in society as a whole plus the even more insular Us-Vs-Them mentality within the American prosecutorial legal system plus the fact that American policing was literally borne out of slavery on the work of groups like the KKK, equals a series of interlocking systems in which people who are not whitepassing, not male-perceived, not straight-coded, not “able-bodied” (what we can call white supremacist, ableist, heteronormative, patriarchal hegemony, but we’ll just use the acronym WSAHPH, because it satisfyingly recalls that bro-ish beer advertising campaign from the late 90’s and early 2000’s.) stand a far higher likelihood of dying at the hands of agents of that system.

Here’s a quote from Sara Ahmed in her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, which neatly sums this up: “[S]ome bodies are ‘in an instant’ judged as suspicious, or as dangerous, as objects to be feared, a judgment that can have lethal consequences. There can be nothing more dangerous to a body than the social agreement that that body is dangerous.”

At the end of this piece, I’ve provided some of the same list of links that sits at the end of “On The Invisible Architecture of Bias,” just to make it that little bit easier for us to find actual evidence of what we’re talking about, here, but, for now, let’s focus on these:

A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing
2006 FBI Report on the infiltration of Law Enforcement Agencies by White Supremacist Groups
June 20, 2016 “Texas Officers Fired for Membership in KKK”

And then we’ll segue to the fact that we are, right now, living through the exemplary problem of the surveillance state. We’ve always been told that cameras everywhere will make us all safer, that they’ll let people know what’s going on and that they’ll help us all. People doubted this, even in Orwell’s day, noting that the more surveilled we are, the less freedom we have, but more recently people have started to hail this from the other side: Maybe videographic oversight won’t help the police help us, but maybe it will help keep us safe from the police.

But the sad fact of the matter is that there’s video of Alton Sterling being shot to death while restrained, and video of John Crawford III being shot to death by a police officer while holding a toy gun down at his side in a big box store where it was sold, and there’s video of Alva Braziel being shot to death while turning around with his hands up as he was commanded to do by officers, of Eric Garner being choked to death, of Delrawn Small being shot to death by an off-duty cop who cut him off in traffic. There’s video of so damn many deaths, and nothing has come of most of them. There is video evidence showing that these people were well within their rights, and in lawful compliance with officers’ wishes, and they were all shot to death anyway, in some cases by people who hadn’t even announced themselves as cops, let alone ones under some kind of perceived threat.

The surveillance state has not made us any safer, it’s simply caused us to be confronted with the horror of our brutality. And I’d say it’s no more than we deserve, except that even with protests and retaliatory actions, and escalations to civilian drone strikes, and even Newt fucking Gingrich being able to articulate the horrors of police brutality, most of those officers are still on the force. Many unconnected persons have been fired, for indelicate pronouncements and even white supremacist ties, but how many more are still on the force? How many racist, hateful, ignorant people are literally waiting for their chance to shoot a black person because he “resisted” or “threatened?” Or just plain disrespected. And all of that is just what happened to those people. What’s distressing is that those much more likely to receive punishment, however unofficial, are the ones who filmed these interactions and provided us records of these horrors, to begin with. Here, from Ben Norton at, is a list of what happened to some of the people who have filmed police killings of non-police:

Police have been accused of cracking down on civilians who film these shootings.

Ramsey Orta, who filmed an NYPD cop putting unarmed black father Eric Garner in a chokehold and killing him, says he has been constantly harassed by police, and now faces four years in prison on drugs and weapons charges. Orta is the only one connected to the Garner killing who has gone to jail.

Chris LeDay, the Georgia man who first posted a video of the police shooting of Alton Sterling, also says he was detained by police the next day on false charges that he believes were a form of retaliation.

Early media reports on the shooting of Small uncritically repeated the police’s version of the incident, before video exposed it to be false.

Wareham noted that the surveillance footage shows “the cold-blooded nature of what happened, and that the cop’s attitude was, ‘This was nothing more than if I had stepped on an ant.'”

As we said, above, black bodies are seen as inherently dangerous and inhuman. This perception is trained into officers at an unconscious level, and is continually reinforced throughout our culture. Studies like the Implicit Association Test, this survey of U.Va. medical students, and this one of shooter bias all clearly show that people are more likely to a) associate words relating to evil and inhumanity to; b) think pain receptors working in a fundamentally different fashion within; and c) shoot more readily at bodies that do not fit within WSAHPH. To put that a little more plainly, people have a higher tendency to think of non-WSAHPH bodies as fundamentally inhuman.

And yes, as we discussed, in the plurality of those AFWTA links, above, there absolutely is a danger of our passing these biases along not just to our younger human selves, but to our technology. In fact, as I’ve been saying often, now, the danger is higher, there, because we still somehow have a tendency to think of our technology as value-neutral. We think of our code and (less these days) our design as some kind of fundamentally objective process, whereby the world is reduced to lines of logic and math, and that simply is not the case. Codes are languages, and languages describe the world as the speaker experiences it. When we code, we are translating our human experience, with all of its flaws, biases, perceptual glitches, errors, and embellishments, into a technological setting. It is no wonder then that the algorithmic systems we use to determine the likelihood of convict recidivism and thus their bail and sentencing recommendations are seen to exhibit the same kind of racially-biased decision-making as the humans it learned from. How could this possibly be a surprise? We built these systems, and we trained them. They will, in some fundamental way, reflect us. And, at the moment, not much terrifies me more than that.

Last week saw the use of a police bomb squad robot to kill an active shooter. Put another way, we carried out a drone strike on a civilian in Dallas, because we “saw no other option.” So that’s in the Overton Window, now. And the fact that it was in response to a shooter who was targeting any and all cops as a mechanism of retribution against police brutality and violence against non-WSAHPH bodies means that we have thus increased the divisions between those of us who would say that anti-police-overreach stances can be held without hating the police themselves and those of us who think that any perceived attack on authorities is a real, existential threat, and thus deserving of immediate destruction. How long do we really think it’s going to be until someone with hate in their heart says to themselves, “Well if drones are on the table…” and straps a pipebomb to a quadcopter? I’m frankly shocked it hasn’t happened yet, and this line from the Atlantic article about the incident tells me that we need to have another conversation about normalization and depersonalization, right now, before it does:

“Because there was an imminent threat to officers, the decision to use lethal force was likely reasonable, while the weapon used was immaterial.”

Because if we keep this arms race up among civilian populations—and the police are still civilians which literally means that they are not military, regardless of how good we all are at forgetting that—then it’s only a matter of time before the overlap between weapons systems and autonomous systems comes home.

And as always—but most especially in the wake of this week and the still-unclear events of today—if we can’t sustain a nuanced investigation of the actual meaning of nonviolence in the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy, then now is a good time to keep his name and words out our mouths

Violence isn’t only dynamic physical harm. Hunger is violence. Poverty is violence. Systemic oppression is violence. All of the invisible, interlocking structures that sustain disproportionate Power-Over at the cost of some person or persons’ dignity are violence.

Nonviolence means a recognition of these things and our places within them.

Nonviolence means using all of our resources in sustained battle against these systems of violence.

Nonviolence means struggle against the symptoms and diseases killing us all, both piecemeal, and all at once.


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It’s been quite some time (three years) since it was done, and some of the recent conversations I’ve been having about machine consciousness reminded me that I never posted the text to my paper from the joint session of the International Association for Computing And Philosophy and the The British Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour, back in 2012.

That year’s joint ASIB/IACAP session was also a celebration of Alan Turing‘s centenary, and it contained The Machine Question Symposium, an exploration of multiple perspectives on machine intelligence ethics, put together by David J Gunkel and Joanna J Bryson. So I modded a couple of articles I wrote on fictional depictions of created life for, back in 2010, beefed up the research and citations a great deal, and was thus afforded my first (but by no means last) conference appearance requiring international travel. There are, in here, the seeds of many other posts that you’ll find on this blog.

So, below the cut, you’ll find the full text of the paper, and a picture of the poster session I presented. If you’d rather not click through, you can find both of those things at this link.

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“Any Sufficiently Advanced Police State…”
“…Is indistinguishable from a technocratic priestly caste?”
Ingrid Burrington and Me, 04/17/15

As I said the other day, I’ve been thinking a lot about death, lately, because when two members of your immediate family die within weeks of each other, it gets into the mind. And when that’s woven through with more high-profile American police shootings, and then capped by an extremely suspicious death while in the custody of police, even more so, right? I’m talking about things like Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, and the decision in the Rekia Boyd case, all in a span of a few weeks.

So I’m thinking about the fact that everyone’s on the police bodycam trip, these days, especially in the USA–which, by the way will be the main realm of my discussion; I’m not yet familiar enough with their usage and proliferation in other countries to feel comfortable discussing them, so if any of you has more experience with and references to that, please feel free to present them in the comments, below. But, for now, here, more and more people are realizing that this is another instance of thinking a new technology will save us all, by the mere virtue of its existing. But as many people noted at Theorizing The Web, last week, when those in control of the systems of power start to vie for a thing just as much as those who were wanting to use that thing to Disrupt power? Maybe it’s not as disruptive a panacea as you thought.

We’ve previously discussed the nature of the Thick Blue Wall–the interconnected perspectives and epistemological foundations of those working on the prosecutorial side of the law, leading to lower likelihoods of any members of those groups being charged with wrongdoing, at all, let alone convicted. With that in mind, we might quickly come to a conclusion that wide proliferation of bodycams will only work if we, the public, have unfettered access to the datastream. But this position raises all of the known issues of that process inherently violating the privacy of the people being recorded. So maybe it’s better to say that bodycams absolutely will not work if the people in control of the distribution and usage of the recordings are the police, or any governing body allied with the police.

If those members of the authorities in charge of maintenance of the status quo are given the job of self oversight, then all we’ll have on our hands is a recapitulation of the same old problem–a Blue Firewall Of Silence. There’ll be a data embargo, with cops, prosecutors, judges, union reps getting to decide how much of which angles of whose videos are “pertinent” to any particular investigation and yeah, maybe you can make the “rest” of the tape available through some kind of Freedom Of Information Act-esque mechanism, but we have a clear vision of what that tends to look like, and exactly how long that process will take. We’re not exactly talking about Expedient Justice™, here.

So perhaps the real best bet, here, is to provide a completely disconnected, non-partisan oversight body, comprised of people from every facet of society, and every perspective on the law–at least those who still Believe that a properly-leveraged system of laws can render justice. So you get, say, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a PUBLIC defender, an exonerated formerly accused individual, a convicted felon, someone whose family member was wrongfully killed by the police, a judge, a cop. Different ethnicities, genders, sexualities, perceived disabilities. Run the full gamut, and create this body whose job it is to review these tapes and to decide by consensus what we get to see of them. Do this city by city. Make it a part of the infrastructure. Make sure we all know who they are, but never the exact details of their decision-making processes.

This of course gets immediately more complicated the more data we have to work with, and the more real-time analysis of it can be independently done, or intercepted by outside actors, and we of course have to worry about those people being influenced by those bad faith actors who would try to subvert our attempts at crafting justice… But the more police know that everything they do in every encounter they have with the public will be recorded, and that those recordings will be reviewed by an external review board, the closer we get to having consistent systems of accountability for those who have gotten Very used to being in positions of unquestioned, privileged, protected authority.

Either that, or we just create a conscious algorithmic system to do it, and hope for the best. But it seems like how I might have heard that that was a sticky idea, somewhere… One that people get really freaked out about, all the time. Hm.

All that being said, this is not to say that we ought not proliferate body cameras. It is to say that we must be constantly aware of the implications of our choices, and of the mechanisms by which we implement them. Because, if we’re not, then we run the risk of being at the mercy of a vastly interconnected and authoritarian technocracy, one which has the motive, means, and opportunity to actively hide anything it thinks we ought not concern ourselves with.

Maybe that sounds paranoid, but the possibility of that kind of closed-ranks overreach and our tendency toward supporting it–especially if it’s done in the name of “order”–are definitely there, and we’ll need to curtail them, if we want to consistently see anything like Justice.