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.

Locating Queer History with the Addresses Project

I recently sat down with Gwen Shockey in her Brooklyn home to discuss her work on The Addresses Project. Gwen, at 31, is one of the youngest LGBTQ historian-artists in the field. 

The Addresses Project geolocates over 400 current and former queer and lesbian bars in New York City and positions queer/lesbian stories in New York City history. Points on a map provide information on a particular location, including former and current names, its dates of operation as a queer community space, and relevant excerpts from interviews. In addition to an interactive map, the Addresses Project is an oral history archive to which Gwen uploads transcripts of interviews with figures from queer New York history. 

Entry for Bagetelle, a lesbian bar in operation in the 1950s.

Gwen came to this project after the fatal Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016. Wanting to do something with her restless sense of despair, she began work on an oral history archive. She was drawn to figures who have done community forming work in their lives. The map naturally emerged as a central grounding point for the oral history. The bars and clubs where queer community members gathered for nightlife often because spaces of consciousness-raising, organizing, and sharing resources.

Gwen looks to the New York City LGBT Historic Sites Project map as an aspirational source. She describes the website as super easy, intuitive, and searchable. The Addresses Project is on its way there. Gwen has done as much as she can on a hobbyist’s budget, using free tools such as Google Maps to bring the project to life, but wants to add functionality such as filtering in the near future. 

I asked Gwen about how her personal media management practices affect her work. Although the Addresses Project is separate from her artistic and professional work, it is prominent in her online presence. She uses her personal platforms to amplify the work she’s doing with the Addresses Project to raise awareness and increase the likelihood that other historians can use it in their own research. 

Gwen borrows time from her day job to work on the Addresses Project during the weekday. Behind the browser window with her work email, and administrative tools are tabs running Dropbox and Google Docs. She listens to interviews, which she records on her iPhone, and transcribes them in long-form. 

While the Addresses Project has been making steady progress since its inception, Gwen would like to see it continue to expand and improve. For example, visitors will notice that the main page of the Address Project directs them with two separate links to the map and oral histories. The archive of oral history interviews is hosted on Squarespace, while the map itself is hosted on Bluehost. This is a pain point for Gwen, as she wishes she could merge the simplicity of a blogging interface that Squarespace offers with the flexibility of the map’s interface. 

Landing page for the Addresses Project on Gwen Shockey’s Squarespace site.

Gwen’s next steps in expanding the archive will involve photography and possibly producing a podcast. On her Instagram page, she writes: “Every time I’ve been lucky enough to do an oral history interview with a lesbian/queer community leader for Addresses Project I’ve regretted not working with a photographer to capture each person’s portrait in the bar/nightclub/community center etc. they risked all to create for other lesbians and queer folks.” She has begun working with a fellow queer artist, Riya Lerner, to document her subjects in the spaces that they made homes out of for their queer communities.

Ruha BenJamin vs. The New Jim Code

By Char Jeré

Ruha Benjamin’s talk on Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code was just as raw as the topic itself. It came with no filters, no disclaimers and no trigger warnings— it wasn’t for the precious, it was for the people whose lives depend on such brutal honesty. This moment with Benjamin felt like an astral projection, the experience catapulting me from a space where darkness was being vilified to a place where it is now finally embraced. During this talk, it seemed like Benjamin was shepherding us out of our own black boxes of internalized racism and into clarity. After her three provocations, I was called to take a left out of my body and a right into my imagination—the directions were simple but you still needed to know them, as a right out of my body could have led me back into someone else’s imagination, essentially up the creek without a paddle. Benjamin stated that, “Most people are forced to live inside of someone else’s imagination”, citing Adrienne Marie Brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, as an inspiration. As Brown explains in her book, “I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”. Power does indeed lie in the ability to imagine but what happens when you have an old, tiresome imagination that turns innocent people into potential threats, “superpredators” and even worse, demons? These words have all been weaponized by top political figures, from Hillary Clinton to killer cops (like Darren Wilson) against African Americans for centuries. Officer Wilson described Michael Brown as a demon before he brutally shot and killed the 18-year-old on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Audre Lorde would call such things “imagination without insight” in her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury”.

A photograph from the exhibit on African-American progress, on view inside the Palace of Social Economy at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. (Library of Congress)

I started thinking more deeply about my daily interactions with intrusive, white-bred artifacts; Benjamin quoted Langdon Winner as saying “Artifacts have politics.”. The residues of white inferiority have been scattered strategically around us and are the default within the design and ultimately, within the system. White bias exists in so many facets of our daily lives that it often becomes disturbingly inconspicuous. Kara Walker states that with monuments and memorials, “…there’s this very peculiar quality that they have of being completely invisible— the larger they are, in fact, the more they sink into the background.” The effects of this phenomenon (white inferiority) were having fun double-dutching and hopscotching through my genes like school kids on summer break. Right there in my cold metal folding chair, I sat realizing that every new technology’s job was not only to reintroduce us to new trauma but to preserve the intergenerational trauma in my DNA. The matrix of oppression could be explicit but it could also be obscure; it could be abrasive while also being agreeable, moonlighting as a “serve and protector”. It was as disruptive as light is to darkness but useless against reason and true innovation. Ruha Benjamin pushes us to examine our interiority, so we no longer need to put up with the mediocrity of settler colonialism. She wants us to liberate ourselves so we can start truly innovating change. We are now impenetrable and have received our reparative vaccinations against white redundancy that have been killing and stagnating us for centuries. It is time to finally welcome modernity. In Safia Elhillo’s book The January Children, she references a quote by Adonis, “How many centuries deep is your wound.”. This was not a question–it was a critical examination of race, ethnicity, class and gender through rhetoric. My question is: when they colonize Mars, will racism still be en vogue?

I am the God of war! ARrrrrghhhh!!!!!

“THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.” Alisha Wormsley’s billboard exclaims, hovering over an area in Pittsburgh that has seen rapid changes from “re-development” projects and gentrification. We are in the future just by existing in this present moment but for me it is not just about being there, it’s about where we are there. During the talk-back, people who were living in public housing explained that their landlord installed facial recognition software without their consent. They also expressed concern about their right to privacy. New technology has never been empathetic to the needs of marginalized people, which means that designers do not envision us in the future. Firearms, steam engines, the Cotton Gin and the internet are all examples of how technological advances keep oppression well-fed. As Benjamin shifted her talk from the well-documented problems of white technological setbacks to solutions on how to mobilize against these “New Jim Codes”, she states this: “Like abolitionist practices of a previous era, not all manners of resistance and getting free should be exposed…calls for abolition are never simply about bringing harmful systems to an end but also about envisioning new ones…”.

(Image courtesy of Jon Rubin)

People who have been marginalized and made the most vulnerable are constantly working and fighting to adjust their user settings, in turn causing them to consistently relive their own trauma. Benjamin declared, “The nightmares that many people are forced to endure are the underside of elite fantasies about efficiency, profit, and social control.”. Her declarations are the tuning forks of knowledge–they are our first post-apocalyptic radio broadcast that blares the coordinates of liberation. Benjamin shows us that there are more of us out there, imagining and creating outside of the logics we had internalized; we are building our own micro-revolutions. She reassures us that nothing is permanent, especially not oppression. In thinking about what some historians call “slave-breeding”, or coerced sexual-reproduction (eugenics) during slavery in the Americas, instead of UXD, I started repeating “HXD, HXD…HXD,” for Human Experiment Design, or more specifically, the process of manipulating human behavior and genetics through brutality, mortality, and corporeality. People have been and still are being domesticated like animals and plants, which has real-world implications. The whip, the gun, the white man and capitalism are all clinging tightly to our cells like a gene mutation.

There was a sense of urgency in Benjamin’s voice that activated the ancestor memory card deeply embedded within my DNA, sending RNA and Cas9 by way of gene-drive technology to isolate trauma, cut it out and be rid of it once and for all. The idea of eliminating white inferiority from our genetic coding is liberating but to think that we possess the power to free our ancestors who came before (and will surely come after) has started to consume me. She pointed to Pierre Bourdieu as saying that, “the way you know you have a powerful system is that you no longer need the conductor, people just orchestrate themselves. You internalize it and [that’s how] we keep it going.”. She goes on to say that colorism is not perpetuated in the black community or other communities of color by a white man standing there and saying “you are better, you are worse, you are more valued…it’s through the internalization of the logic that we continue to reproduce amongst ourselves.”. Suffering is a trillion-dollar, sadistic business that finds joy and comfort in exploiting pain—capitalism relies heavily on its reproduction through the germ cell lineage. We have no choice but to disrupt this industry by denying it access to the next generation.  

The night of the talk, Benjamin felt like Morpheus from the Matrix but she didn’t give us the option to be complacent anymore; there was only one pill. The doors of the Housing Works were the threshold of the linear perception of time; walking through them meant there was no going back. We were all accountable because we were now all armed with the knowledge and inspiration to bring about our own insurrections. There was an energy in the room that I hadn’t felt since my radical Black feminist seminar in undergrad, which was both optimistic and restorative. When Harriet Tubman walked by a plantation singing “Steal Away” and “Sweet Chariot”, that was her way of communicating that it was time to move and time to break free. Likewise, when Ruha Benjamin took the stage, her provocations were like the songs of the Underground Railroad, her last being the most profound: “The imagination is a contested field of action, not an ephemeral afterthought that we have a luxury to dismiss or romanticize but a resource, a battleground, an input and output of tech and social order.”.


Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press

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;

Memory and Community: Person, Place, and Thing

Person: Cynthia Cruz

Cynthia Cruz is a poet of German and Mexican descent, born in Germany but raised in northern California. Her work reads like a scrapbook, image after image placed on top of one another. Her third book Wunderkammer translates to “a cabinet of curiosities”. Each poem heavy with German history, German artists, and fragments of the personal. Each image is locked in a multi-leveled vitrine for the reader’s consumption. The poet’s mother was a hoarder, the poet is obsessed with archiving, the need to “collect, assemble, and name”.

In 2018 I attended Cynthia Cruz’s craft talk at the Poet’s House entitled “The Archive as Resistance”. In 2010, as a Hodder fellow at Princeton, Cruz scoured through archives to research for Wunderkammer. She drew inspiration from German visual artists: Hanna Darboven, Gerard Rictor, and Rosemary Trockel. As well as great German writer and thinkers Aby Warburg and Walter Benjamin. Throughout her collection, she created “totems and objects that carry memory or meaning”. She describes the poems in Wunderkammer as dense, long lines, and no space, a type of claustrophobia”.

Wunderkammer is an exploration of trauma and how trauma informs and changes people. A part of her research involved reading about the building of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

The creation of a museum that houses artifacts and relics of Berlin Jews chronologically create a sense of closure as if the Holocaust was now in the past. When in fact that past has not passed. Questions of how it could have happened and it’s impact are felt throughout and informs contemporary Germany, Berlin, and the world.

In conversation with Sharon Macdonald’s “Is Difficult Heritage Still Difficult?”, Cruz’s work remains personal (fictional or not), her use of German history is through her lens (girlhood, failure, and mental illness). Macdonald’s piece deals with the right way to present such a dark past: facts versus emotions, how much of the horror to show, heritage versus nationalism, and etc. Through the poems in Wunderkammer, Cynthia Cruz takes fragments of her past, her mixed cultures and works from people from her native country to make a sort of collage.

Place: The Historic New Orleans Collection

In 1938, General L Kemper and Leila Williams purchased two properties in the French Quarter—The Merieult House and a late 19th century residence on Toulouse Street. Throughout their lives they gathered a hefty amount of important Louisiana artifacts. After the couple passed, their home became the Historic New Orleans Collection.

The Historic New Orleans Collection – Merieult House. 533 Royal St., New Orleans, LA 70130.

In 2016, during my first trip to New Orleans, I got to witness the award winning and traveling Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865 exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection. I walked in with two childhood friends and my one friend’s aunt, we moved separately, sometimes we regrouped but we never spoke. From what I recall, you could hear a pin drop, it seemed like every visitor was busy absorbing the information to say anything of value.

Historian Erin M. Greenwald curated the exhibit which includes period broadsides, paintings, and prints illustrating the domestic slave trade, interactive displays, historical records by tracking the shipment of more than 70,000 people to New Orleans. While there were interactive components, most affective, was the “Lost Friends” ads placed after the Civil War by newly freed people attempting to locate family members. The preservation of those ads made everything so three dimensional. In Cloonan’s “W(H)ITHER Preservation”, she writes, Preservation allows for the continuity of the past with the present and the future”. I was there on vacation, steps away from Bourbon street, filled with tourists and bachelorette parties, but on a ground drenched in history and blood. The presentation of the ads-from floor to ceiling- daughters looking for mothers they had not seen in 30 years, gave the memory institution have a pulse.

Thing: Little Free Library (Take A Book, Share A Book)

A small wooden box full of books, where neighbors are encouraged to take a book and leave a book. Little Free Library is a non-profit whose mission is to increase access to books for readers of all ages and backgrounds. The organization boasts 90,000 street libraries in 90 countries. Those who want to start a Little Free Library can order a kit through their website or build their own. Their website also has a map where the user can type in their zip code and find the Little Free Library nearest to them. There are two in walking distance from my apartment in Bushwick. I think the idea is adorable and promotes community building.

This reminds me of Chatman’s four concepts in “The Impoverished Life-World of Outsiders”. She names deception, risk-taking, secrecy, and situational relevancy as reasons “information outsiders” remain on the outside. But with something like the Little Free Library, it’s open to everyone, there need not be any sharing of personal information or personal stories. There is a freedom, no need to sign up for a library card, or fees for lateness, it is almost encouraged for it to be anonymous. The only concern is not enough people knowing about such a uniting program.

-Herbert Duran


2018: The Archive as Resistance: A Craft Talk with Cynthia Cruz. (n.d.). Retrieved November 7, 2019, from Poets House website:

Chatman, E. A. (n.d.). The Impoverished Life-World of Outsiders. 15.

Chatman—The Impoverished Life-World of Outsiders.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Cloonan, M. V. (2001). W(H)ITHER Preservation? The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 71(2), 231–242.

Cloonan—2001—W(H)ITHER Preservation.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Cruz, C. (2014). Wunderkammer. New York: Four Way Books.

Exhibition – Purchased Lives: New Orleans And The Domestic Slave Trade, 18081865 – New Orleans, LA. (n.d.). Retrieved November 7, 2019, from

Macdonald, S. (2015). Is ‘Difficult Heritage’ Still ‘Difficult’?: Why Public Acknowledgment of Past Perpetration May No Longer Be So Unsettling to Collective Identities. Museum International, 67(1–4), 6–22.

Macdonald—2015—Is ‘Difficult Heritage’ Still ‘Difficult’ Why Pu.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Purchased Lives Exhibit Opens At The National Civil Rights Museum. (2018, January 25). Retrieved November 7, 2019, from Black Then website:

What We Do. (n.d.). Retrieved November 7, 2019, from Street Books website:

Event Review: AI Now 2019 Symposium

On October 2nd, 2019 the AI Now Institute hosted its 4th annual symposium. Titled “The Growing Pushback Against Harmful AI,” the symposium brought together lawyers, professors, community advocates, and organizers to discuss the ways that Artificial Intelligence has negatively affected their communities, their work, and their lives. The AI Now Institute is an interdisciplinary research institute based at New York University that focuses on the social implications of current and emerging AI technology. The AI Now Institute brings experts across fields, professions, and communities together to identify and respond to the growing ubiquity of AI technology, and the harmful effects it is proving to have.

Co-Founders and Co-Directors Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker introduced the symposium by doing a “Year in Review,” highlighting some of the major events involving AI in the past year, including San Francisco’s ban on facial recognition technology and Amazon abandoning its HQ2 in New York City. The symposium was then divided into four panels, which explored topics such as the use of AI technology by the police and border patrol agents, the pushback by tenants in an apartment building in Brooklyn who are fighting against facial recognition technology, a class-action lawsuit against the state of Michigan for using an algorithm that falsely flagged over 20,000 Michigan residents of employment fraud, and lastly the methods, successes, and goals of organizing tech workers across platforms to win gains in the workplace.

The first panel of the symposium, “AI and the Police State,” was chaired by Andrea Nill Sánchez, incoming Executive Director of AI Now. This panel spoke with Marisa Franco, Director and Co-Founder of Mijente; Ruha Benjamin, Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University; and Kristian Lum, Lead Statistician of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group. The panelists dove right into the ways that AI systems, technology, and information practices are used by border patrol agents and local police departments to target undocumented and marginalized people. On the same day as this panel, the New York Times published an article detailing how Donald Trump suggested border police “shoot migrants in the leg” (Shear and Hirschfield Davis) if they threw rocks at border agents, a chilling backdrop for the discussion. 

Franco spoke to the fact that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) relies on local police and contracts with technology companies to meet their arrest and deportation goals. Amazon’s “Ring” and the Palantir’s “FALCON Tipline” have been specifically exposed as aiding police departments and I.C.E in locating people who are undocumented for arrest and deportation. Franco directly pointed to Amazon and Palantir as targets of Mijente’s strategizing against the use of tech companies profiting off of deportations (using the hashtag #NoTechForICE on social media). 

Benjamin and Lum spoke to the use of AI and various algorithms to criminalize and target marginalized communities. Benjamin highlighted the specific threats that automated risk assessment technology pose to already vilified communities. Municipalities are increasingly turning to pre-trial risk assessment algorithms to determine a defendant’s risk of committing a future crime, a process that is deeply embedded with racial stereotypes and highly questionable, racially biased data. These algorithms serve to perpetuate racist stereotypes and the criminalization of poverty by drawing from data in a deeply racist, sexist, and classist society. Benjamin powerfully spoke to how these algorithms aren’t actually “flawed,” they are working exactly as intended for police departments, to legitimize racially targeted policing by pointing to algorithms that are described as neutral and objective, when they are anything but neutral or objective.

As outlined by Safiya Noble in her 2016 PDF talk titled “Challenging the Algorithms of Oppression,” she makes it is clear that technology and algorithms reflect and produce the racism and prejudices of the society they are created in. These algorithms serve to maintain and continue racist stereotypes because of the perception that technology, data, and algorithms can be objective. The question becomes, how do we challenge both the racist society that produces the data the algorithms used, and how do we prevent algorithms from perpetuating racism in our virtual and physical lives?

Amid the sea of examples of the ways that facial recognition technology is being used to target, criminalize, and further marginalize already vulnerable populations, the second panel focussed on AI technology used to monitor tenants in the Atlantic Towers in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The panel “Tenants Against Facial Recognition” included two Community Activists from the Atlantic Towers Tenants Association, Tranae Moran and Fabian Rogers. Along with Mona Patel, an attorney from Brooklyn Legal Services, they both spoke of the Tenants Association’s case against their landlord for attempting to install facial recognition software in their building without informing or acquiring consent from the tenants. Their case highlights how there is no precedent for legislation on facial recognition technology in housing units. This case will be an important milestone in the fight against surveillance and attacks on privacy, and speaks to the new ways that people will have to fight back against invasions of their privacy and the collection of their data.

The session “Automating Judgement” was a conversation between Jennifer Lord, a lawyer from Michigan, and Kate Crawford. They discussed the automation system MiDAS, which ultimately upended over 20,000 people’s lives by falsely accusing them of employment fraud. Sparking the question, when algorithms fail, who is responsible? Lord spoke to the dangers of outsourcing fraud detection work, as well as outsourcing any social benefit dispersal programs, to machines and algorithms. 

These three sessions highlighted that when algorithms both work as intended or fail at their task, they have the ability to ruin people’s lives. These panels demonstrated that when these technologies do work, they pose serious threats to marginalized communities by drawing from data sets imbued with racist histories and stereotypes, and also act as unwanted tools of surveillance in marginalized communities. When algorithms don’t work as intended they are able to act as the most brutal bureaucrat and withhold necessary services to citizens and flag them as criminals.

The final session, “Organizing Tech,” brought together organizers from the Awood Center and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (Abdirahman Muse and Bhairavi Desai, respectively), and Veena Dubal, a lawyer focussed on technological and social issues, in conversation with Meredith Whittaker. This panel highlighted the need for tech workers to connect with workers across both sector and class to make demands of employers. Groups have emerged such as the Tech Workers Coalition which aims to connect various tech related labor, social, and economic movements as a result of the widespread struggles that tech workers have been experiencing. 

This symposium brought together key figures in ongoing struggles with AI. However these issues are just the tip of the iceberg. As AI becomes more ubiquitous in our culture, and the business model of tech companies continues to exploit both workers and the consumers of their products, the need to hold AI and tech companies accountable will become ever more important. Whittaker and Crawford concluded the symposium with calls to continue to challenge the ways that AI can be used to discriminate, exploit, and cause harm to individuals and communities and to do so by centering the voices and experiences of those who are most affected by these systems.

Works referenced 

AI Now Institute.

Felton, Ryan. 2016. “Michigan unemployment agency made 20,000 false fraud accusations – report.” The Guardian. Accessed October 2019.

Michael Shear and Julie Hirschfield Davis. 2019. “Shoot Migrants’ Legs, Build Alligator Moat: Behind Trump’s Ideas for Border.” The New York Times. Accessed October 2019.

Noble, Safiya. 2016. “Challenging the Algorithms of Oppression.” PDF 2016 Talk.