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The normalization of dystopia

by on June 10, 2020

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A result of there being no fucks to give

Some days are better than most, but others can be genuinely difficult. Today was one of the latter.

alice has no fucks to give

There’s just so much out there to be pissed off about, and eventually you run out of piss (and are left with just the vinegar).

Most of the time I manage this by tuning out, not looking at social media, and focusing on work that makes me feel better. Today it was building a quick website for my new line of business: valley.farm.

Meanwhile the rest of the world continues on its dystopian path:

On the morning of May 18, Judge Keith Dean of the Collin County District Court in Texas thanked the potential jurors in front of him for coming and performing their civic duty, as always. Then he and Judge Emily Miskel gave some new, unusual instructions: Tell your roommates to leave the room when we tell you to. Stay plugged into an outlet. And no Googling about the case in another tab!

It was what officials believed was the country’s first wholly online jury trial, gone virtual because the coronavirus has made it dangerous for people to pack into a courtroom in person. This was a minor case—a summary trial of a civil case against an insurance company, with a nonbinding verdict—but a milestone nonetheless. And as the global pandemic stretches on, this experiment with video hearings could too.

But while holding an entire trial by video is new, some jurisdictions have held some types of hearings over video for years. So, what have they learned about the effects of remote courtroom proceedings?

video jury

This morning I was trying to put into words why I find “video conferencing” so unsatisfying if not unpleasant, and I struggled. However this article gives me the word I was looking for: dehumanizing.

Who are we without our bodies? Without our physical form? Robots? Cyborgs? Software?

I don’t have the answer, but I definitely feel dehumanized.

The article above cites interesting research that suggests virtual justice is terrible for defendants, especially those who already face bias and prejudice in the court system.

Appearing in a courtroom via video is not new, but this pandemic will undoubtedly normalize it in ways that are not good.

Similarly I’m worried that algorithmic justice will be normalized by this pandemic. This is the practice by which people are judged based on accumulative (and indecipherable) scores assigned to them by algorithms. Called social credit systems by some, they’re spreading around the world and throughout the economy.

Here’s an article written by in part by Laren Kirchner, also the author of the one cited above:

Burglary and domestic assault in Minnesota. Selling meth and jumping bail in Kentucky. Driving without insurance in Arkansas. Disorderly conduct. Theft. Lying to a police officer. Unspecified “crimes.” Too many narcotics charges to count.

That’s what the landlord for an apartment in St. Helens, Ore., saw when he ran a background check for Samantha Johnson, a prospective tenant, in 2018.

But none of the charges were hers.

The growing data economy and the rise of American rentership since the 2008 financial crisis have fueled a rapid expansion of the tenant screening industry, now valued at $1 billion. The companies produce cheap and fast—but not necessarily accurate—reports for an estimated nine out of 10 landlords across the country.

The automated background check for Johnson cast a wide net, looking for negative information from criminal databases even in states where she had never lived and pulling in records for women whose middle names, races, and dates of birth didn’t match her own. It combined criminal records from five other women: four Samantha Johnsons, and a woman who had used the name as an alias—even though the screening report said she was an “active inmate” in a Kentucky jail at the time.

This is a scary vision of our algorithmically ruled future. Machines unable to distinguish between different people, and people not bothering to distrust the results produced by these machines.

A review of hundreds of federal lawsuits filed against screening companies over the past 10 years shows how hasty, sloppy matches can lead to reports that wrongly label people deadbeats, criminals or sex offenders. Among those who say they were wrongly maligned:

Davone Jackson, who was denied low-income housing in Tennessee after the screening company RealPage reported that he had twice been convicted of trafficking in heroin in Kentucky and was on Wisconsin’s sex offender registry. In fact, those records belonged to an Eric Jackson and a James Jackson. After the denial, Davone Jackson said, he and his 9-year-old daughter were forced to live in a small motel room for nearly a year.

Glenn Patrick Thompson Sr. and Glenn Patrick Thompson Jr., who said they had been left homeless near Seattle after a tenant screening company called On-Site, which is now part of RealPage, told two different landlords that the father and son had been previously evicted. In fact, the eviction was for a Patricia Thompson, who was not related to them.

William Hall Jr., who lost out on a duplex in his small town in Georgia after TransUnion Rental Screening Solutions said he had sexually abused a minor. The criminal record belonged to a William Hall who was 30 years older and possibly dead. Hall said the landlord had stopped returning his telephone calls after receiving the incorrect report.

Lauren’s follow-up article on how they conducted their investigation is super interesting:

It illustrates both how difficult it can be to uncover this kind of algorithmic injustice, but also how widespread it seems to be.

Combine this with the historical analysis that pandemics lead to further concentrations of wealth, and there’s reason to be concerned:

But another less often remarked consequence of the Black Death was the rise of wealthy entrepreneurs and business-government links. Although the Black Death caused short-term losses for Europe’s largest companies, in the long term, they concentrated their assets and gained a greater share of the market and influence with governments. This has strong parallels with the current situation in many countries across the world. While small companies rely upon government support to prevent them collapsing, many others—mainly the much larger ones involved in home delivery—are profiting handsomely from the new trading conditions.

The mid-14th century economy is too removed from the size, speed, and interconnectedness of the modern market to give exact comparisons. But we can certainly see parallels with the way that the Black Death strengthened the power of the state and accelerated the domination of key markets by a handful of mega-corporations.

A similar process seems to be taking place in this pandemic, but a key difference will be the role of automation and digital platforms.

Although this isn’t just about Amazon or Facebook’s continued and expanding dominance of the economy and society. It also includes the way these platforms enable the automation and consolidation of political activity.

Behind China’s combative new messengers, a murky hallelujah chorus of sympathetic accounts has emerged to repost them and cheer them on. Many are new to the platform. Some do little else but amplify the Beijing line.

No doubt some of these accounts are run by patriotic, tech-savvy Chinese people who get around their government’s ban on Twitter and other Western platforms. But an analysis by The New York Times found that many of the accounts behaved with a single-mindedness that could suggest a coordinated campaign of the type that nation states have carried out on Twitter in the past.

Of the roughly 4,600 accounts that reposted China’s leading envoys and state-run news outlets during a recent week, many acted suspiciously, The Times found. One in six tweeted with extremely high frequency despite having few followers, as if they were being used as loudspeakers, not as sharing platforms.

Nearly one in seven tweeted almost nothing of their own, instead filling their feeds with reposts of the official Chinese accounts and others.

In all, one third of the accounts had been created in the last three months, as the war of words with the Trump administration heated up. One in seven had zero followers.

These sorts of campaigns are indicative of the automated diplomacy that is growing in power and influence. While their impact and effect is debated, their methods and tactics are refined.

It reminds me of actor-network theory, which is increasingly relevant. One of the authors of said theory has been getting interesting attention during the pandemic:

What we need is not only to modify the system of production but to get out of it altogether. We should remember that this idea of framing everything in terms of the economy is a new thing in human history. The pandemic has shown us the economy is a very narrow and limited way of organising life and deciding who is important and who is not important. If I could change one thing, it would be to get out of the system of production and instead build a political ecology.

A political ecology is increasingly how I perceive the public sphere, or at least what we consider the public sphere, a/k/a social media, and the diverse set of opinions perspectives.

Although that is a topic for another day… In the meantime, here’s the latest iteration of the “political compass” meme:


Can you find yourself on that compass? If so, or even if not, let us know!

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