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

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:

Season of the Witch: Revisited

Season of the Witch: Revisited

“Season of the Witch” was so unlike Donovan’s generally optimistic, New Age-anticipating, romantic catalog that I always sort of assumed it was a cover (and I actually had a copy of his Greatest Hits growing up that plainly lists him as the writer).  The song’s sense of dislocation and paranoia, of things falling apart, seemed a world away from “Mellow Yellow,” “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” or “Sunshine Superman,” even if you were never totally sure what the latter song was about.  Nevertheless, I loved his version of “Season,” and I still consider it about the best out there.

The slideshow was an interesting one to make, in that I started seeing connections between things, such as witch hunts and anit-semitisim, eugenics and white power, Hair Furor and King Leopold, that I had never really thought of as having much relation before. I also had no idea James Garfield had such a way with words, at least until he was assassinated. I originally planned it as examination of anti-Semitism, but it ended up becoming much broader than that, for better or worse, which is really for you to decide.

I was interested in the topic of Anti-Semitism, in part because–although I was raised as a Catholic and have no Jewish relations as far as I know–it seemed as if at least once a year a complete stranger would stop me on the street and ask me if I was Jewish. Sometimes they accepted my slightly apologetic denials without further questioning, although occasionally they could be quite persistent, seemingly absolutely certain about their identification. I, after all, had only my memories, as well as my personal and familial experience, to go on; they had . . . what, exactly?  Whatever it was, at least some of them seemed to have absolute faith in their ability to “divine” a Jew. I have to admit, it happened with enough regularity up until middle age, that I found myself wondering about what it was  that they were reacting to? My hair (dark, but not stereotypically curly), my nose (big but not hooked), my glasses (I never had the impression that bad eyesight was an ethnic or religious signifier)?  Could they be privy to some information about myself that had been kept hidden from me? Perhaps they wanted to invite me to some ultra-cool, ultra-exclusive party? Maybe they just wanted to put my name on a list for some mysterious future purpose, not necessarily a malevolent one, although I couldn’t help wondering a little.

I never really felt threatened, partly because these encounters usually took place on relatively populous, public streets, usually in the afternoon, and the tone of the questions usually came across as interested rather than hostile. Certainly, many people take pride in their ability to identify and “size up” other people, although I couldn’t escape drawing the conclusion that many such people aren’t nearly as expert at it as they seemed to think. I have no doubt they were right some of the time, but that isn’t really a very impressive trick of discernment. In any event, at about the time I turned forty, this annual ritual of mis-recognition evolved into a more benign form. Instead of being asked if I was Jewish, I started to be asked (again, by complete strangers) if I were Steven Spielberg? I quickly developed what seemed to be a convincing comeback for this: “No; he’s thinner, richer, and more talented than I am.” Rather to my disappointment, no one ever continued to insist that I was Spielberg in spite of my denials; my contention that I was overweight, not terribly rich, and not terribly talented was just so obviously, so empirically, so intuitively true, that they usually laughed, nodded, and walked away. No one, of course, ever asked who I was, but I have a feeling that this is not a question that gets asked much in modern American society, which may itself be symptomaic of the problems addressed in this slideshow:

Despite its rather bleak perspective on human beings, I hope somebody can take something positive out of it.