HEWN, No. 342

"Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth" -- Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman

This week’s Columbidae is the brown cuckoo-dove. (Image credits) The bird — another lovely Australian pigeon — makes a “whoop-a-whoop” call, which is definitely not the mood I’ve been in these past few days. What a year this week has been.

The push for facial recognition technology in schools is getting more and more attention, this week with a story in The New York Times on the Lockport public schools’ decision to adopt the technology. It’s done in the name of “safety,” of course, even though facial recognition technology makes us all decidedly less safe — particularly the Black students in Lockport who are already disproportionately disciplined. Facial recognition technology — and body cameras WTF — will simply make the school-to-prison pipeline function more efficiently.

The promise of “greater efficiency” underlies so much of tech adoption, even though we should know by now that it never turns out easier / faster / cheaper / better. Take a look at the debacle in Iowa, for example, and the app that was supposed to facilitate reporting the results of the caucuses. There's an ed-tech angle to this story: apparently the team that built the app were recent code school graduates. There are a number of reasons why the app was, according to multiple reports, poorly designed. The team had very little time, for starters — not nearly enough for adequate development, let alone testing. But I think the coding bootcamp connection is worth thinking about. Something is wrong when one comes out of a short-term training program like that with a ton of confidence and a very limited skill-set — and not just a lack of knowledge, in general, about the intricacies of software development, but a lack of understanding of the side-effects of software.

One of the problems, broadly speaking, of the tech industry is that it is bound up in a narrative about disruption and displacement. It has little respect for expertise. Indeed, it sees expertise as an obstacle to change. Although we now know that the software was terrible — dangerously so — the precinct workers, many of whom probably had decades of experience running caucuses and elections, were initially blamed for the delay in results. It’s always “user error,” isn’t it. This faith that digitization is necessary, that technology will improve things, that technologist know WTF they’re doing is shown to be utterly misplaced again and again and again. And yet here we are. The Democratic Party, looking back on Obama's victory, still believes that technology will be what helps it win, even if this one app was a set-back. (The GOP believes tech is its ace too and is investing in a “billion-dollar disinformation campaign to re-elect the President.”) But tech is not what won the election in 2008; people did. The grassroots campaign was built on top of organizing and activism that existed before and outside of text messaging.

Welcome to the Bullshit Economy,” as David Dayen describes it: “Your mind doesn’t have to travel to the nether regions of conspiracy, but you can hardly blame people for doing so. This is reflective of the rolling incompetence covered by confidence within the modern economy, especially when you sprinkle on the labor-saving promise of techtopia. When the bullshit economy fails, it robs people’s belief in the basic bargain of commerce, the idea that you get what you pay for, that companies operate in good faith to provide quality service. But when placed in contact with politics, it just demolishes faith in the system. The bullshit economy spurs distrust.” (And in fairness to coding bootcamps, let’s just admit that CS programs and highly technical colleges also participate heavily in this bullshit. Case in point: this. And related perhaps, do read Malcolm Harris’s review of Anna Wiener’s new memoir about her time as a tech worker in Silicon Valley.)

Yours in struggle,
~Audrey