Against Big Data

I am mad about tech optimism

Winston

hello again nerds,

I hope you are well. I hope you have been protesting or supporting protesters as you are able (if you do not support the Black Lives Matter movement and the current push to defund/abolish the police I highly doubt you will enjoy receiving my book recs). This newsletter is the result of a book I am reading right now called Future Histories that I had been rather excited to read but has pissed me off so much that I am writing here to collect a reading list that I think anyone who wants to imagine the future of technology should please read as a foundation.

The thesis in Future Histories is that if we can find better historical examples through which to understand current technology, we will better be able to create dreams for the future. I am absolutely on board with this thesis, but shortly into the book I was sending angry texts to a friend who has also read it because the book does not succeed at its goals. Finding different histories is helpful for the future only if you understand the possibilities and limitations of tech that we have right now. And this book does not understand these things, by my analysis.

So much magical thinking that exists in the world these days about how tech will help us create a better future. And I’m not discussing Silicon Valley types or VC funders; I expect no better from them. I’m talking about the leftist books I read that discuss tech, which are often convinced that big tech is a means of production just waiting for us to seize and reorient towards more liberal futures that work towards the flourishing of every person. Automation has always harmed workers, they point out, but once we collectively control it then it will be beneficial. Machine learning and big data has enriched a bunch of white men, but once the people building products and tools with this tech are more representative, then we will use these means towards collective liberation. And so on.

Future Histories is one of many books I have encountered that develop such arguments.

The books I list below establish numerous rebuttals to these arguments; here I highlight two. First, despite all the rhetoric around hackers and hippies in Silicon Valley, the world of digital tech that exists today exists because of—and in support of— capitalism. If we are to imagine a world where everyone can flourish, a world beyond capitalism, we should be wary of assuming that the tools and tech that has built up capitalism can help us escape it. Audre Lorde should be heeded: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Second, I think an argument that so many are working to develop and prove but is sadly overlooked—to our great detriment—is automation, big data, and digital tech seem unlikely to be compatible with liberation and human flourishing. The benefits they bring to massive corporations are not the benefits we seek in a post-capitalist world.

The way we can decide whether or not they are useful in the future we desire is by paying attention to what possibilities they actually provide. No wishful thinking; rather we much name what is compromised, what is considered unnecessary, what the tool builders have considered “externalities” or“worthwhile compromises” as they have built up the tech we use every day. Only when we look closely at these details can we determine if the world that our tech can build is a world that allows for the flourishing of all humans. Based on everything I know, the tech so many assume can be repurposed towards liberatory ends is wildly incapable of helping us achieve those ends.

That’s my current analysis, and the books below are my favorites from everything I’ve read so far that led me to it.

The Real World of Technology

by Ursula Franklin

I recommended this book in my first newsletter and I bring it up again because it should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in tech. The book is short, brilliant, and will give you so many tools for understanding the tech that surrounds us. Towards the end of the book, Franklin offers a checklist of considerations for all new tech; suggestions like prioritize reversibility (meaning, don’t implement things you can’t undo) and I return to that list again and again. If you read only one book from this list, please let it be this.

Buy on Bookshop.

Algorithms of Oppression

by Dr. Safia Noble

This book, as Dr. Noble relays, came about because in the early 2000’s she wanted to find some activities to entertain her niece and some friends, and so she typed “black girls” into Google (she, her niece, and her nieces friends are all Black). The search results she received were all porn. In this book, she examines how Google—an advertising company— has tried to convince us that it is a neutral party organizing the world’s information. Dr. Noble explicates the capitalist motives that lead Google to act as it does, and contrasts these to models of knowledge organizing that might be more beneficial to human flourishing; whether or not they fulfill capitalist demands.

Buy on Bookshop.

Automating Inequality

by Virginia Eubanks

In the past decade and a half, many companies and governments have embraced the appeal of big tech and the optimizations that they supposedly bring to implementation of governmental services. Eubanks shows in this comprehensive book that the reality does not ever live up to the hype. With ethnographic research on different programs in LA, Indiana, and Pittsburgh, she shows how data—and the tech built on that data—limits possibilities; harms those already suffering; and generally moves us away from a world of human flourishing. This book is an important counterpoint to all wishful thinking about how data helps us make the world better.

Buy on Bookshop.

Weapons of Math Destruction

by Cathy O’Neil

People who believe in that tech is a good force long-term will often argue that examples exposed in the books above are contextual, and thus not necessarily a result of the tech itself. O’Neil—a mathematician who has worked in both finance and tech on big data projects—has written an easy-to-read book that reveals tech believer’s arguments to be premised on magical thinking. This book talks about the math and implementation of big tech, and all of the compromises and shortcuts involved in building products in this world. Big data, O’Neil argues, requires oversimplifying the world to try and represent it in computer-friendly terms. In so doing, it often cuts out all of the messy human things that make our world wonderful so that the capitalists can build tools that succeed for their aims. We should name these losses and not allow them to be sacrificed simply because it makes computer modeling easier. This books is a valuable tool in that fight.

Buy on Bookshop.

Artificial Unintelligence

by Meredith Broussard

Broussard’s book pairs well O’Neils as she establishes how AI is not nearly as great as the people who will profit from it would lead you to believe. Broussard is a researcher who has worked in the field for a long time, and she delightfully brings the reader into an understanding of how computers work in order to help the reader understand how simplistic, literal, and fragile the tech we refer to as “Artificial Intelligence” is. Machine “learning” is not actually “education” as humans define it, and AI is not nearly as intelligent as people who don’t understand but want to profit from it would have you believe. Broussard wonderfully exposes these shortcomings at a very non-technical level.

Buy on Bookshop.

Disability, Bias, and AI

AI Now Institute

This is not a book; it is an 18 page research paper by a non-profit research org I highly respect. I’m recommending this paper because it’s the best examination of big data and AI from a disability perspective I have come across. It explores a few ways Disability Theorists are arguing for understandings of humanity and the world that are completely incompatible with the ways that AI/Machine Learning/Big Data understands these realms in just 18 short pages. I wish this area were ripe with discussion and books so that I had more options to choose from here but I am unaware of such options. So I recommend this paper because it exposes tensions that I personally do not think should be reconcilable. Disability is not categorizable in the ways that machine learning/AI conceives of the world. A world in which disability is centered and disabled people are given every possibility to flourish is most likely not one that centers big data, or the tech that derives from it. That world must center people—and all their access needs—and reject all tech that does not improve their lives. This paper makes the argument succinctly and compellingly.

Read the PDF.


This newsletter has possibly been more of a polemic than previous issues. I have no regrets. I did not even mention other books I love (this one and this one and this one!) because I was trying to keep this short. A goal I kind failed at!

I refuse magical thinking when I am trying to figure out how to work towards the future I want. I hope you do too. Our future is unwritten, and so we collectively have so much power to define it. I hope we don’t fuck it up.

-W

Black lives matter.

Fuck the police.

Another world is possible.

No justice, no peace.

We are the people, the motherfucking people.