Digital Poorhouse

Columbia   Daily reports of hacking and contentious debates about privacy or the lack of it are now commonplace.  Reports are already on the front page of the papers about the fact that Facebook is even now alerting the FBI that certain groups have been formed to try to manipulate voters before the 2018 midterm elections in the USA, and they are likely being fomented by Russian governmental actors.  Concerns about the violence fanned by social media applications like Facebook’s WhatsApp in India, Indonesia and elsewhere have forced the fumbling Facebook team to limit “shares” to no more than twenty at a time, as if that’s a solution.  Nonetheless, the scariest thing I have read recently was a book called Automating Inequality documenting the “digital poorhouse” by Virginia Eubanks.

Mentioning this book to some of the tech team of Action Network, the great social action and mobilization tools and applications organization before their retreat on the eve of the Netroots gathering in New Orleans, where I was asked to make some opening remarks, they at first thought I was talking about the digital divide which is standard issue for lower income families.  “Internet for All,” as ACORN’s campaign is called in Canada or our $10 per month fights with Comcast and others in the USA are certainly focused on that issue, but Eubanks’ “digital poorhouse” is something much, much worse.

Here we are talking about digital tools, artificial intelligence, and mindless algorithms in many cases being weaponized against lower income and working families in precarious situations.  Proving her proposition, Eubanks meticulously dissects several case studies.

The first was the effort by Indiana’s Republican Governor Mitch Daniels to make eligibility determinations for social service programs in that state, whether food stamps, welfare, or Medicare, through a more than half-billion contract with IBM.  The intention was to make the process virtually mechanical, cutting down the labor costs and discounting the experience of social service professions in the state system and by computerizing the process reduce beneficiaries.  The results several years later were such a horror that even Daniels was finally forced to concede that it was an unholy mess ending up in contentious litigation between Indiana and IBM. Tragically, even as the experiment was a disaster, it succeeded in both reducing the state payroll and, even worse, dramatically reducing the number of beneficiaries of public support programs in the state.  Paperwork was lost.  The process was complicated.  Appeals grew exponentially as desperate families tried to keep from being arbitrarily rejected and then struggled to get recertified.  People were harmed.  People died.  Families when hungry.

In another case, Eubanks looked at the problems in the Pittsburgh/Allegany County system of child and youth services.  Even with perhaps better intentions, data was weaponized and the error rate was extreme.  The algorithms assigned worse risks than common sense would ever have determined.  Children were separated from families.  Mothers were shamed.

Eubanks was not waving the Luddite’s banner.  She was cautioning that these tech hammers are pretending that all situations – meaning people – are the same nails, and the impact on lower income families is not only extreme, but given the way data works, permanent.  The “digital poorhouse” is caging a class of people and in her works, “automating inequality” by using all of these tools and weapons against the poor.


Thanks to KABF.

Charles Lloyd & The Marvels & Lucinda Williams’ Angel.

The Doors’ Hello I Love You.


Strategies for Dealing with Privacy as a Lost Cause

New Orleans     As Facebook slips off its pedestal of pretense and posturing about its contribution to the common good that has disguised its brutal capitalist commitments and real priorities, it’s worth wondering if claims to protect consumers’ privacy are just more empty promises.  Personal privacy may be just a lost cause and a battle engaged too late.  Many of us use Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Amazon and the rest for work, so we’re simply stuck in the muck of social media:  we can’t get out, so we’re hoping it doesn’t pull us under.

There may be some strategies though.

We could ask the European Union to regulate these companies.  They seem better at it.  In the United States, there’s too much “oh, gee!” and too little “oh my god” from politicians and potential regulators.  Asking the EU to do the job would be cheaper.  We could just enter a “me, too” agreement.  What’s good for them, would be great for us.

One of the priceless ironies is the intramural dispute between Facebook’s Zuckerberg and Apple’s Tim Cook over regulation.  Cook is saying it may be needed now even while he hedges with language about “careful crafting,” which is usually a euphemism for allowing lobbyists to write the regs.  But, look, Apple has to be the most consumer indifferent company in Silicon Valley.  Inexplicably, passwords won’t work.  They control obsolescence by weakening I-Phone batteries.  They jack their prices to try to make their products luxury items around the world.  They believe in privacy so much that they block you from their products after you buy them!

If we can’t go Euro, some people have embraced alter egos and misinformation.  There was an article where Facebook was complaining that saying you were 113 years old for example messed with their algorithms.  Their whine seems to be a mandate to try this strategy.  Monkey-wrenching their algorithms sounds like a way to go to the heart of the beast and get their attention for real!

Multiple identities are anther prospect many have used.  Some are fabricated.  Others use middle names, nicknames, maiden names, nom de guerres, or whatever in order to participate, but to create their own bubble around their privacy.  Facebook claims you can’t have two accounts, but, hey, people are doing it everywhere, so don’t tell me with 2 billion users or the recent headlines that they are on top of their business, ok?

Or, another way you can protect yourself on Facebook, which many young people are doing, is simply never join.  Of course, when they go Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, they defeat the purpose, but the Facebook growth engine is not being fueled by young people in the West, but by new users around the world.

Some of these strategies might work, but believing we still have privacy in the modern world of the internet and social media, come on, really?  If you do, please contact me, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn that I think would be a perfect purchase for you.  Message me on the FB!