Slave to the Algo(Rhythm): A Grace Jones inspired Slideshow on Math, Alienation, Inequality, and Oppression

Previously published (in slightly different form) on The Daily Kos. I had the rather unpleasant experience of being in prison lately. It wasn’t a surprise, in that it was a result of an arrest back in January that itself was the result of my own stupidity and despair. In essence, I turned myself into the court (as required) on Thursday morning at the end of June, went on the bus down to the County Jail around Thursday noon, and was in fact released by about one o’clock Friday afternoon. As the Torah I had brought to read was confiscated (I had been incorrectly told that you could bring a religious book—in fact you can’t bring anything from the outside at all without having it taken away at some point). Also taken (as I expected) were my self-phone, medication, a small amount of cash, and shoe laces, all of which were taken away at the local court where I was first processed, and then the rest of my clothes were exchanged for not totally unattractive prison blues and slippers when I arrived at County.  I never actually got assigned a bed, but—having identified myself as a member of a “special” population—was kept in a holding cell all night with other members of my “group.” Some seemed like nice people, some not so nice, and some simply disturbed; but the same could be said about the guards, deputies, and prison staff in more or less equal proportions.

Physically, the most unpleasant part was how cold it got, especially towards the end of the night, as it was impossible to get blankets or sheets, I suppose on the rationale that a prisoner’s death from hypothermia or exposure was easier to explain than suicide by bedsheet or blanket (although—if you were really determined to kill yourself and didn’t mind your corpse being partially unclothed—I’m pretty sure your prison-issued trousers would work just as well).  Psychologically, the worst part was the sense that you didn’t exist, as it quickly became apparent how practiced prison employees were at ignoring the inmates in this holding cell. You could actually see them turn to avert their eyes as they approached the long glass window that faced the prison corridor which basically everyone had to walk down in order to complete their processing and get assigned a bed and—I imagine—privileges like being able to get a book from the prison library.  When they reached the end of the long glass window, their heads would snap back, so they could see us (at most) out of the corner of their eye. Although decals on the windows told us in emphatic terms to contact the guards if someone tried to commit suicide, there seemed to be no way to do this, even if they were only a few feet away on the other side of the glass. Presumably, if you splashed enough blood on the windows, one of the more compassionate and observant guards would eventually notice. Please go below the fold for more, and a cool video I made.

My attorney had e-mailed me that I would be reporting for my 96 hour sentence with two days credit for time served. So I was surprised to discover on Thursday morning that the court had no record of my two days credit (my lawyer was not present) A number of people told me I might be released early, but it was unclear was who made the decision about early release, as it didn’t seem to be the bailiff or the judge I appeared before (it wasn’t really a hearing or a trial, just an appearance).  One of the sheriffs at the local jail explained that it was all based on how crowded the jail was and what category of prisoner you were. That’s when I understood: the decision would be made not be any human being, but by a computer that had been programed by human beings based on algorithms that they had designed at the behest of their employers. While I was certainly aware of algorithms, especially in terms of how they are used in Search Engines, the experience really brought home how much they have come to dominate virtually every aspect of modern life: not only search engines but the legal system, the financial sector, advertising, and even–increasingly—the arts.

As with firearms, there is nothing inherently bad about algorithms, but they can easily used for biased, unethical, or just plain evil purposes by human beings. As the old saying goes, numbers don’t lie, but people lie with numbers.  They inevitably reflect the biases and petty concerns of the people who design them and—too a much greater degree—the people who hire those programmers to design them. Anyway, I came up with the idea for this slideshow last Friday night around midnight, after I had gotten tired of playing find the shape in the stain (oh look, this one resembles a dinosaur; here’s one that looks like a turd, oh no, wait—I think it is . . . I think I’ll move further away). I actually had a copy of the eponymous Grace Jones album that “Slave to the Rhythm” was released on back in the eighties (a slightly different mix than the one I use for the slideshow), although I haven’t seen or listened to it in years.  By the way, I am not saying we should get rid of all algorithms, which is probably impossible as they are essentially hard wired into us, but merely that we should stop and think about what we are doing so that the algorithms we make will actually promote equity, fairness, and even connection to our fellow, suffering human brothers and sisters. It almost comes across as a joke when you state it like that, which is itself kind of sad. Anyway, here is the slideshow:

 Peace.

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  1. Pingback: The War on Drugs: a personal essay and a slideshow — passage2truth

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