There Are Other Suns: Ruha Benjamin in Conversation with Cathy O’Neil Imagining Abolitionist Technology

This past October, associate professor of African American Studies, Ruha Benjamin presented on their new book, “Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code” and sat in conversation with author and data scientist, Cathy O’Neil. Who is perhaps most well known for their 2016 bestseller, “Weapons of Math Destruction”. 

The presentation and discussion, held at Housing Works Bookstore in SoHo, centered on “algorithmic bias” an issue of increasing recognition for scholars, researchers, and activists working at the intersections of social justice and technology. The most critical takeaway from this discussion, however might be the need to take a closer look at the assumption that that the technical and the social ever exist separately from one another. It’s this assumption; that technology is somehow a neutral space or apolitical artifact that Dr. Benjamin’s book works to dismantle. 

The event began with D. Benjamin giving a short summary of their path into this research. She gave audience members three provocations to hold unto as she walked us through her conception of the “New Jim Code”. Based Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow, Dr Benjamin uses New Jim Code to describe the confluence of coded bias (our inherent bias built knowingly and unknowingly into the machine) and the supposed objectivity of technology (a mixture of beliefs that tech is a neutral tool without politics + the idea that the mathematical operates beyond or outside of the realm of the social); “ [New Jim Code is] innovation that enables containment but appears fairer than ‘more explicit’ forms of racialized bias that preceded it” (Benjamin 2019)

1.”Racism is Productive”

Here Dr. Benjamin pointed to the ways in which sociologists often think of race as “socially constructed”. This means that race and racism are not naturally occurring phenomena, but made, performed and informed by social norms. To a certain degree, particularly now that terms like “intersectionality” have become mainstream, the idea of race along with other vectors of power like gender, orientation and ability as socially constructed isn’t mind-blowing. But the idea of race being a thing that constructs as well as being constructed is. 

“Racism produces things of value to some even as they wreak havoc on others” (Benjamin, 2019)

It should be no surprise then that new forms of racism, that are actually manifestations, expansions or iterations on previous forms come into being, particularly in and around technology.

2. “Race and Technology are Co-Constructed”

Through this provocation Dr. Benjamin asks the audience to consider the ways that race and technology shape one another and inform one another. Particularly within contemporary liberal “diversity” rhetoric, we are taught to think of racism as a mistake or aberration, a bug in the proper functioning of the system of Western society. But racism is not a bug in the machine, it’s part of the software. So we can’t only frame issues of bias in tech in terms of social “impacts”, what’s more critical is considering the social “inputs”  that go unacknowledged but are also fed into the black box. Further these inputs “allow some inventions to appear inevitable and desirable.” 

3. “Imagination is a Battleground”

Dr. Benjamin considers imagination a “contested field of action”. The scope of imagination delimits what forms of social and political relationships are possible, both for the oppressed and those contributing to and profiting from the oppression of others. 

“Most people are forced to live inside someone else’s imagination” – (Benjamin & O’Neil 2019) 

Thinking about the differentials of imagination. The places where we enter or be placed within another’s imagination are site where power operates, Any designed space fiction or other immersive narratives are living inside someone’s imagination as is living within a nation state, within an institution, inside any designed space or interaction. We might ask then who are the imagners 

“The nightmares that many people are forced to endure are the underside of elite fantasies…Racism produces this fragmented imagination; misery for some and monopoly for others”

What does our fight for justice and liberation on the battleground of imagination look like? What does it mean for information professionals to be a part of this battle? For one, we must consider the way bias starts at the point of conceptualizing what problem exists that tech can then be consulted or created as solution to. This means looking at who is doing the imagining and how do the social norms and social fictions they have internalized inform what they can understand as “a problem to be fixed. Further our work has to involve not only critiquing and disassembling current systemic and systems of harm but also imagining and building the alternative worlds and futures we want to exist. Technology can potentially be a critical tool for that work, but that work must be approached through interrogating our own positions within the matrix of domination, and carried out with intention and with the most radical imaginings. I am reminded here of the speculative fiction collection, Octavia’s Brood, edited by community organizers Wahlidah Imarisha and Adrienne Marie Browne and named after the critically acclaimed matriarch of Black Speculative Fiction, Octavia Butler. The major thesis of the collection is the idea that all social justice work can and must be speculative work, because to organize towards liberation is to attempt building worlds that do not exist.  

Abolition then  entails not only bringing harmful systems to an end but imaging what we want to come next. By no coincidence, Dr. Benjamin quoted Octavia Butler during Q.A. when two audience members asked one for a timeline of community action around the battle for imagination in technology, while a follow up asked for more clarification on imagination as a call to action. or examples of what reclaiming imagination might look like and why it is important. 

Dr. Benjamin clarifies that her call to imagination is meant to open it up as a space for theory and praxis. She warns that imagination as a productive tool or space can be co-opted by entities and for aims that want nothing to do with building actual alternatives to the status quo. Further, there is a limit to what imagination, on its own, can accomplish. But it must be part of the work. 

In example, Dr. Benjamin firstly brings up a 2018 Stanford psychology study titled “The Numbers don’t Speak for Themselves”. The study hypothesis took up the idea that “rationality” could win over racism, if people we presented with the statistical evidence of systemic racism within the criminal justice system, they would have no logical choice but to accept it’s existence and support progressive policies that worked to undermine it. This data was presented to people living within the Bay Area, not exactly where one imagines secret racist nodes. But racism operates most violently and most insidiously in the banal and well meaning. According to Dr. Benjamin,  what researchers found however was exposure to the data actually made their sample participants more likely to support stronger punitive measures not progressive reform. These findings run counter to the idea that more data draws an inevitable straight line toward social change. Something else is happening, or not happening, within the expanse between the data and transformative change. Some names for this space that were offered include Clauida Rankine’s “racial imaginary” or interpretive frames. People will fill this space, or take from this space the stories that work for the worldviews they already have. The data is not enough Dr.Benjamin’s call to imagination is a call for us to be “more rigorous” about this space.  

“We have to become more deliberate and rigorous about this space in the middle. Whatever you want to call that; you can call it imagination, culture, lenses, frameworks whatever it is. But a lot of times we save our rigor and our investment for trying to produce the data. As if it’s gonna lead in some straightforward way towards to the changes what we hope [for]. 

I think we need to become not only more rigorous but more creative in shaping the stories, the interpretations and not accepting the dominant story about why people are kept in cages. That is exactly what an abolitionist imagination seeks to do. We have to work with that in a more deliberate way instead of hoping people will come to that on their own.” – 

In attempting to define what the goal of abolitionist technologies are and what a liberatory imagination is,  Dr Benjamin refers to herself as a student of Octavia Butler, paraphrasing her by saying “there’s nothing new under the sun, but there are other suns”. The liberative imagination then is about taking on the mantle of building worlds within worlds, models of what futures we want to exist. 

Works Cited:

Benjamin, R & O’Neil, C. (2019, October). Race After Technology. Presentation and Pane Discussion at Housing Works Bookstore, New York, NY.

Alternative Traces: Networks of Community, Care and Control at the Cybernetics Library

At the top of the stairs, in a nondescript building in Manhattan’s upper west side lives a library; chronicling the history and differing manifestations of a school of thought critical to the development of computation and the algorithmic culture we live in today. The building is Prime Produce, an artist, educator, and community organizing co-op and the collection is  The Cybernetics Library.

The “library” is perhaps best described as a “library of systems rather than a library of technology” says Sarah Hamerman, Project Cataloguing Specialist for Rare Books at Princeton University Libraries and Cybernetics Librarian. Through a physical and digital collection of books, zines, ephemera, articles, and guides the Library works to trace the history of cybernetics as a conceptual framework, unearth it’s influence on the history of computation and political organization, and make visitors and users aware that the questions we have today about how we might ethically and justly relate to each other, to non-human agencies, and deal with power in a mediated world are not new, but at the heart of the entangled history of society and technology in the broadest sense.

But what is cybernetics and why is it so important to computing? The word may sound familiar to anyone even adjacently related to computer science, information technologies or speculative fiction. “Cybernetics” is attributed to MIT mathematician, Norbert Weiner,  who articulated this “new science” in his 1948 publication of the same name (Kline, 2015). Weiner defined cybernetics as the study of “systems of communication and control in the animal and machine”. Synthesizing research done and observations made by several scientists and scholars including Claude Shannon (who published his “Mathematical Theory of Information that same year), anthropologist, Margaret Mead and John von Neumann and largely focused on optimizing information sharing in relation to the war effort, cybernetics suggested that the mechanisms of feedback, or the movement of outputs and inputs within a complex system, that were being applied to the design of machines could be applied to mapping, understanding, and by extension, influencing biological life (human and non-human) as well (Kline, 2015).

Looking at the history of Cybernetics is also looking at the history of the development of computation in service of military apparatus; charting a lineage of influences from Weiner and Shannon, to Jay Forrester and the development of the missile defense system during the Cold War and eventually to the ARPANET, whose development was commissioned and funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and would lead directly to the internet. But the use and application of cybernetics is complex and muti-faceted. When I asked Sarah to define Cybernetics she made sure to situate it’s birth within this military context while pointing to alternative interpretations that were also critical to the birth of Silicon Valley:

“Cybernetics is a kind of trans-disciplinary set of ideas that emerged in the 40s and 50s. It’s a way of looking at how social, technical and engineered systems operate and how mechanisms of feedback alter the functioning of the system…This set of theories was quite important in the early development of computation, which did come out of a military context. But then on the other side of things, this way of developing a dynamic and systemic approach to thinking about the flows of information, the flows of power, and the flows of energy within mechanical systems became interpreted within the social sphere as a way of looking at how society could be organized through mechanisms that were more dynamic, non-hierarchical, in-flux and potentially [more] egalitarian than the kind of very hierarchical systems of order that had operated until this 1960s growth of social consciousness in the West.

So on the one hand [Cybernetics] has been used by existing structures of power to kind of optimize systems and is often talked about in this more technocratic way; in terms of control. But then on this counter-cultural side [Cybernetics] was thought of as ways to engineer these more fluid and open and dynamic systems; ecologically, socially, politically, what have you.”

One example of the counter cultural history of cybernetics is in the influence of the Whole Earth Catalog, a counter culture magazine founded by Stewart Brand and published in California in the late 60s. As Sarah explained, “the magazine was very much a catalog of resources for building a “back to the land” communalist lifestyle detached from the urban capitalist social formations”. This proposed social ordering was widely distributed and influential with the mass migration of young Americans to communes in the 60s, but was imagined as connected to technology as it was to the “natural world”.

All of the books, manuals and different resources for building stuff were positioned as tools through the rhetoric of Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog. The Whole Earth Catalog ended up being really inspiring to a lot of the initial founders of Silicon Valley companies and what has become the modern big tech industry. This logic of the tool you can see having this throughline from the counter-cultural usage of the WEC to the technocratic of the term tool.

Every kind of program, digital system or app is talked about by these designers and developers as a tool…the ultimate goal of technology is to be these tools to make getting access to information and goods easier for this imagined urban white male consumer and to make invisible the systems of energy and labor that go into the construction of these tools to smoothly optimize or facilitate this access to information.

There is an easier relationship with something that is “just a tool”. The logic of “technology as tool” shifts responsibility for all possible outcomes (and avoiding them) to the user; it obscures and blocks interrogation of the various economic, social, and environmental agents and formations that go into the construction of said “tools”. We should think critically about the behaviors made possible by what is optimized for in a design and what is not. This perspective, the neutrality of the tool, flows into our contemporary moment where machine learning and other forms of algorithmic decision making are positioned as inherently unbiased because they are technological constructs and are therefore objective. Further, as danah boyd and Kate Crawford speak to in “Critical Questions for Big Data”, the supposed objectivity of the big data paradigm obscures the messiness at every level of the process from procedures of collection to interpretation.

Unnamed Diagram, Cybernetics Library Image Collection

“I think as a group, as the Library, we want to make visible the real political complexity of what cybernetics is and how the use of this method of thinking can go wrong, while also thinking about how we can consider it as a methodology to be more aware of our social environment and to build these not necessarily technical but, also, social tools of inclusion.”

This complexity Sarah was speaking to starts in interrogating the lineage of cybernetics. Norbert Weiner to Sillicon valley is one story of this. But this narrative nests within the mythology the development of personal computing as a group of ruggedly individual geniuses tinkering in the proto-maker spaces of their home garages. But if we understand cybernetics as a way of thinking about how and where phenomena, human or otherwise link and are linked to one another, relate and are related to one another and move between and are moved between one another then cybernetic thinking existed long before personal computing, or post-war information theory knowledge , or human ways of knowing at all.

We might look at Project Cybersyn; a proposal for a computer system that would be used to manage newly nationalized industries in 1970s Chile is part of this cybernetic lineage. The fungal networks of mycelium (the root networks of fungi) that weave throughout the roots of trees in forests moving food and chemical signals (read: information) between individuals and colloquially referred to by biologists as “the internet of trees” are cybernetics. Patricia Hill-Collins’s articulation of the matrix of domination through which benefits and harms are distributed throughout populations based on race, class, gender, ability and many other constructed identities is also a type of cybernetics. Justice facilitator and community organizer, Adrienne Maree Browne’s articulation of an “emergent strategy for building complex webs of care and change that scale the transformations social movements work towards”, highly inspired by the work of Detroit based community organizers Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs is a also a type of cybernetics (Brown, 2017). The usefulness of this thinking as a framework is not in translating various phenomena into “cybernetic manifestations”, but as a lens through which we might look at the relatedness of systems of knowing, sharing, being, and making on their own terms.

“As far as technology goes, I think that [the Library] as a group like to think of technologies as things that aren’t necessarily computational or aren’t necessarily engineered or mechanical systems. Different social protocols or ways of passing on information from person to person, sharing food, or constructing rituals can also be technologies that have a very important social function; allowing communities to survive and thrive or allowing relations to be measured in some way. 

Framing technology as something that operates beyond the logic of the computational is a way for me of bringing in practices that are developed by women, communities of color, or Indigenous communities as always already technological or giving value to practices that operate outside these very strict Western Patriarchal logic of technology”

Inspired by the non-hierarchical and decentralized nature of cybernetics, the library is run not as a formal organization but as a collective. As Sarah describes, “Everyone contributes based on their abilities and availabilities and interests and skills for each project”. Where the six primary members (Charles Eppley, Sarah Hamerman, Sam Hart, David Hecht, Melanie Hoff, Dan Taeyoung) work together with a network of collaborators to organize the books and creating searchable records using LibraryThing. The books are almost all donations from private collections, or donated works from fans, scholars, users, and collaborators. Though Sarah notes that additions are also bought by the group, particularly to expand the voices and practices represented within the collection.

While the physical library is browsible primarily by request, engagement can take many forms, as Sarah describes: “Our activities are centered around pop-up libraries and workshops that either interface with other organizations and the public in certain ways or draw out specific themes of the library in different ways”. Past activities include the Cybernetics Conference (for which the collection originally began) and building a selection of titles investigating the cybernetics of sex for a workshop at the School for Poetic Computation, where faculty member (and cybernetics library co-founder, Melanie Hoff) was investigating gender, sexuality, the body and embodiment beyond the human.

Cybernetics, at least in the ways the Library would like users and visitors to think of it, asks us to consider the questions we have about technology today, the worlds we build with and through it are not new, but the newest iteration of our struggles around how we relate to each other, how we relate to the world, how power operates, and how we might reshuffle the pieces of a system to move us toward radical new ends. It’s a potentially critical framework for learning to live in a world where those with the privilege of being technology creators increasingly optimize for (read: shape and influence, explicitly and implicitly) particular formations of community and society. On the one hand we must look at the history of technology and computing as one directly connected to state driven innovations meant to intercede in feedback and shape systems towards militaristic and commercial ends. The Cybernetics Library would like us to consider what other networks we can and have built.

In light of this drive there’s an alternative story we can tell to the one that opened this article. In an artist/organizer co-op on Manhattan’s upper west side live a Library. But the library doesn’t only live there. It’s integrally linked to a community of users around the world, to the work of thinkers, artists, activists, and beings (human and otherwise). Talking to one another and working in around “technology”, whether that manifests in human or non-human agencies, digitally or analog. Wherever communication exists or becomes noise (which itself also communicates), wherever we might consider relationships of power, wherever we are thinking about how coalition and community are formed and maintained, cybernetic phenomena are happening.

As Sarah described at the end of our interview, “I want people to walk away from this collection considering how communities can work together to build systems and technologies that are rooted in an ethic of solidarity and care and that are developed to think more expansively and outside of capitalist solutionist logic of the things that technologies can do. I think that we can begin to imagine differently, informed by how technologies have been implemented already.”

Works Cited:

boyd,  danah, & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical Questions for Big Data. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662–679.

Brown, A. M. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. Chico, CA : AK Press,.

Kline, R. R. (2015). The cybernetics moment: Or why we call our age the information age. Retrieved from

Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics; or, Control and communications in the animal and the machine. Paris,: Hermann;