Tumblr Porn Ban is a Window into the Unsustainable Logic of Internet Capitalism

Today Tumblr announced that they were effective banning porn and sex related content except most text from their platform as of December 17th this year. This policy comes on the heels of Apple delisting the Tumblr app from the App Store because of some child pornography that slipped through their filters. This move to ban this content follows similar bans from other digital technology and financial companies over the past few years including Paypal, Patreon, and Facebook. Although I am always in support of deplatforming pedophilic content (and content created from trafficking), these moves that also sweep up content created by sex workers and pornographic actors is indicative of inherent problems of large social networks themselves and how legitimate sex content (and the people who make them) is being victimized by it. Note I am not a sex worker and so I’m only speaking about this from my perspective as a socialist and sociologist. Please go to my Twitter where I’ve been retweeting sex workers’ unique perspectives on this topic.

Part of my original thread on this topic from earlier today.

As I mentioned in the above Twitter thread, it makes no logical sense why Tumblr (and many of these other platforms) would ban sex content when the problem was specifically child pornography, which again we all agree should be banned from the internet. First of all by banning sex content these companies are leaving advertising and payment processing money on the table which seems like a contradictory thing for capitalists to do. Secondly, they are doing this when we know good and well that child pornography and sex trafficking related content is not the same thing as general sexual content or content created by sex workers. Thirdly, Tumblr itself said that its ban from the App Store was related to a piece of child porn that got past it’s already existing child porn filters. So they have filters and NSFW tags….but somehow banning everything is the solution. It doesn’t add up chief. 

No Idea Idk GIF by Bounce - Find & Share on GIPHY

More likely reason for this ban is twofold. One pressure from the government and conservative forces that pushed and passed the anti-sex work FOSTA bill (aka 
H.R.1865 Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017)
which makes internet platforms for hosting content that facilitates sex work or trafficking activities. The rhetoric around those laws, which too many liberals and leftists have also bought into, have equated sex work by free individuals with sex trafficking. The result has been that platforms that sex workers depend on for their work banning them for fear that they might end up like Backpage which is being legally attacked over the content posted on their site. In this anti-sex work environment it is easy for any company feeling this state facilitated pressure to simply wipe out all sex content. The problem, as discussed at length on Twitter (won’t be linking directly to examples cause I don’t want folks to be harassed via my article), is that sex workers especially Black, Native, and Women of Color who do sex work are being cut off from safe venues to do their work in. Because our society is very hostile to sex workers, especially women/LGBT ones, its easy for Tumblr and other platforms to effectively throw them under the bus to protect themselves instead of fighting for the users who bring tons of value to their sites.

The second reason why wholesale bans seem attractive to these platforms is because of their drive to maximize profits even in light of inherent problems with their platforms. All the large platforms, Tumblr included, currently face situations where their growth has become a liability to their profitability. That liability is rooted in these platforms become de facto public spaces where all groups in society come to discuss issues and do business. The problem there is that they have alot more untoward activity to deal with. The obvious solution from an user perspective is to prioritize the safety of users and have a robust moderation/reporting systems. The problem is that doing either cuts into the profits of these companies as banning Nazis for example will lower ad revenue and having a well organized moderation division costs money. I think many of these companies thought that all they needed to scale was adding more servers when in reality they have to basically govern millions of people based on their own values, that of their users, and the states that allow them to do business there.

In light of that contradiction they seem to be option to arguing that its simply too hard to moderate this much content and just wholesale ban inconvenient groups as they become less profitable. That’s the reason why sex workers are attacked but Nazis aren’t, the political cost of supporting sex workers is much less than supporting Nazis…which well says alot about this society. What they won’t face is the possibility that their platforms are simply too large or badly organized at their core for the purposes that users want to use them for. Even if they acknowledge the fundamental flaws in their business model they won’t admit it until they absolutely have to because acknowledging that will likely mean a drop in their stocks which are dependent on investors believing that profits will grown indefinitely. Although Silicon Valley pushes this logic to the extreme, the response by these platforms to this problem is like that of all capitalists: extract maximum profits before the market crashes and escape before you are held responsible for the carnage you leave behind. As these platforms continue to grow expect more of this “cut the fat” logic being applied to communities on their sites that become economically or politically inconvenient while making the market increasingly hostile to any newcomers through the vertical monopolies being created by these same platforms. And considering that we live in a white supremacist settler colonial society, I put money on it being marginalized non-white people (especially poor, disabled, and LGBT folks) who will bear the cost of this online capital expansion and increasing state control over the web. 

Thedas Studies #2: Elven Mages and Spaces of Resistance in Thedosian Society


(For the sake of this entry assume the Warden from DA:Origins is a Circle of Magi elf mage and the Inquisitor from DA:Inquisition is a Dalish mage)

As I mentioned in the first Thedas Studies piece, Thedas is a settler colonized society where Elves in the collapse of their own civilization were enslaved and oppressed by humans. Whereas the essence of being elven before the Veil was tied directly to magic, human settler society that attempted to replace them instead developed over time to become generally anti-magic. One of the legacies of the rise of the Chantry and anti-mage logics in a deeply anti-elven society is how elven mages are treated by both their elven and human counterparts. One would assume that elven mages would be most oppressed because of their unmatched potential to overturn the settler colonial system with their powers, but there are spaces where elven mages operate outside these systems. In my opinion, those spaces not fully under the control of the Chantry or Thedosian governments might serve in the future as spaces for elven resistance and resurgence. In this piece I want to begin exploring those spaces and possibilities by looking at how Thedosian society interacts with two classes of elven mages, Elven mage Grey Wardens and Dalish Elven Keepers.

For those that are unfamiliar with the Grey Wardens, they are a society of warriors from all species and classes that work to protect Thedas from the Blight and Darkspawn by becoming part Darkspawn themselves. Coming into being during the 1st Blight, they are unique in Thedas for having signed treaties with every political power on the continent granting them the ability to appropriate almost any resource necessary to stopping a Blight including people. Among the ranks of the Grey Wardens is almost always some Circle mages and often even mages branded as maleficarum and/or apostates. These mages are not only crucial as weapons of war but also serve specific functions for the Wardens including conducting the ritual that create Grey Wardens themselves. These rituals would otherwise be illegal per Chantry law since they involve blood magic, but because of the Warden’s treaties they are allowed to act without censure.

What does the above have to do with Elven and Mage oppression? As we see with the Hero of Ferelden (HoF) and her companions, the status of being a Grey Warden even in a hostile situation as we saw during the 5th Blight, overwrites most of the other statuses individuals hold. The HoF often encountered Templars, Ferelden soldiers, nobility and other authorities that would under any other circumstance either have killed her on sight or arrested her to be thrown into the nearest Circle prison. With the protection that Grey Warden status gives them, we see elves among their ranks engage in a range of work and behavior that they otherwise could not. The HoF in particular, showed that an elf could become the most powerful warrior in Ferelden and even fell a Archdemon. The problem is that these people become exceptionals and their exploits credited to their association with the Grey Wardens not their elveness. In that they can unfortunately be seen to be reinforcing, not subverting Humans’ oppressive beliefs about Elves by crediting a human majority organization with their “uplift.”

The Dalish provide another example where Elven mages are able to live outside the bounds of human settler society. The Dalish as a culture built on reclaiming and recreating as much of their pre-colonial society as possible have built an unique leadership structure. The Dalish are split into numerous clans who have little interaction with each other so as to avoid human repression. Because of this form of organization Keepers were created to lead each clan and coordinate among other clans when they do come together. Keepers are all mages and serve both to lead the clan politically but also interpret and interact with magical elven artifacts and sites that the clan comes across. Each clan in addition to a Keeper has a First (and Second) that succeeds the Keeper when they die. Any other mages are expelled from the clan for fear of both Templar attention and the increased risk of demonic possession by having more mages around. The Dalish both represent a form of resistance against the anti-mage order while also engaging in some of those same dominant tropes (e.g risk of abominations) to supposedly protect the clan.

Acknowledging the above, Dalish culture choosing mages as leaders and training them in magic that has not originated in the Circle is far outside the bound of how the Chantry and most humans think that societies should operate. The fact that the Dalish can live this way without many of the same dysfunctions or carceral systems as we see in human mage society also stands as a critique against the Chantry order.

What are the implication of these two classes of people existing in Thedosian society? In both cases we see spaces where elven mages are allowed to not only exist and survive, but thrive. This is dangerous for Chantry ruled society for one key reason which is that for the Chantry to rule and maintain control it depends on omnipresence and omniscience. Specifically the circles and alienages serve as spaces that circumscribe how these oppressed people can engage in the world. Templars can only suppress the magic that they know exists. This is why Knight-Commander Meredith in Kirkwall (before encountering red lyrium) resorted to extreme carceral behavior in response to mage resistance tactics that nobody had seen before (e.g. forcing demons to possess templars). This is why elves in alienages are forced to worship the Maker so that they never develop a culture outside of humanity’s walls. This is why the language of “apostates” and “heretics” are so important. They are words and labeling that activate social systems that prevent mages/elves from ever acting in a way that can’t be controlled or countered by the Chantry, Templars, and human nobles. This is precisely why Grey Wardens and the Dalish are so dangerous; they aren’t bound by these rules and neither are any of their members.

What would happen if the Dalish ever came together and decided to use their accumulated knowledge to address their dispossession? What would happen if the Elven mage Warden-Commander decided that in order to protect from the Blight that the wider political order of Thedas needs to change (a la her influence on Alistair becoming king of Ferelden)? The Chantry may have the remnants of the Seekers and Templar Order to depend on in the face of open conflict but as we saw during the Mage-Templar War sociopolitical orders don’t need to be completely overwhelmed by force to crack and collapse anyways. Considering the new spaces of possibility created by the Inquisition and the return of Fen’Harel to Thedas, these ‘wildcard’ organizations and classes of individuals will have more (radical) ways to change things going forward for better or worse.

Thedas Studies #1: Is Thedas A Settler Colonized Continent?

[This article contains MASSIVE spoilers for the entire Dragon Age series]

I’m one of the Dragon Age players that spent as much time in the Codex reading the well written lore around the in-game world as I did actually playing the game. I’m also a sociologist who studies settler colonialism and urban racial inequality so of course I decided to nerd out by applying my sociological training to studying the world of Thedas during the Dragon Age. So this post is the first in a series I’m calling “Thedas Studies”. So let’s get into it!

For this first post I wanted to deal with the fundamental issue of whether Thedas is a settler colonized continent or not. I think this is an important question to ask because defining what the basic reality of this world is informs how we as people engage with everything else happening within it. For example when we define a society as a “democracy” vs a “dictatorship” we interact with social problems within them, such as police brutality, very differently. This difference in framing social problems can include  ignoring them completely as onlookers and analysts. I will argue below that Thedas is a settler colonized continent and that our analyses of the game world, human/elven relations, needs to be understood within this context.

So what is settler colonialism and how do we recognize it’s existence? Settler colonialism is a form of colonization where the invading regime/population seeks to build a civilization on conquered land vs simply extracting resources and/or ruling over the indigenous population. Settler colonialism is almost by definition always genocidal in nature, where the invaders seeks to eradicate the indigenous population physically, culturally, and genetically from the land so their own descendents can take up permanent residence. In the real world examples of settler colonies include the entirety of the western hemisphere including the US, New Zealand, Australia, and other nations. All of these nations engage in a pattern of eradication/slavery, asserting sovereignty over the land, and in most cases attempting to erase the act of conquest itself and trying to naturalize their presence upon indigenous land.

Looking back to Thedas we clear evidence of at least the replacement of an indigenous population with a foreign one. Dalish oral histories, accounts gathered by the Inquisitor while he explored The Crossroads, and first hand accounts given to the Inquisitor by Solas/Fen’Harel all state that the original inhabitants of Thedas (at least above ground) was the Elves and their civilization of Elvhenan. After Solas attempted to free Elves from the rule of the Gods by creating the Veil, the whole civilization was thrown into chaos with massive losses of life. Some time after the creation of the Veil humans showed up in Thedas, perhaps from Par Vollen or some other unknown place. As elves and humans came into contact elves realized that their immortality beginning to disappear and thus withdrew from contact with humans. Over the next thousand or so years, human tribes grew and took land from elves, enslaving those they captured. Humanity’s rise in power and land base coalesced into the Tevinter Imperium. From that point Tevinter conquered the rest of elven held territory and enslaved the entire species. In this way it is clear that humans engaged in a protracted settler colonial campaign of extermination and enslavement. So on a basic level, Thedas at least under the Imperium was indeed settler colonized.

Some complications come up tho. Abelas for example argues that elven civilization already ended before the humans took over, denying that they conquered anything/anybody really. But I suspect that like Solas, Abelas doesn’t really see modern elves without their Fade enhanced existence as ‘real’ elves and therefore “his people” already died off before Tevinter showed up. There’s also the issue of the Dales, which was given to Elves by Andraste for their assistance in overthrowing the Imperium. The Dales was a sovereign kingdom that was eventually conquered and annexed into Orlais. Does the existence of the Dales= decolonization? What about the rest of the continent that never went back into elven hands? I would argue that decolonization is never complete until the entire settler regime, and in the case of Thedas, its successor states (Ferelden or Antiva etc) are all dismantled. As far as ancient elves like Solas is concerned, none of Thedas rightfully belong to humans or Qunari for that fact. Not to mention that since the Dales got reconquered by Orlais, elves were again fully settler colonized having no sovereign territory of their own (alienages damn sure don’t count lol).

Aside from the land grabs we also see cultural genocide with humans forcing the Chant onto elves, destruction of elven artifacts and structures, as well as a writing of history that denies the pre-contact elven presence on the land. Cultural genocide also includes cultural appropriation and theft. Archon Thalsian, first human blood mage and creator of the Old Gods religion, was argued to be taught blood magic by elves. He then used this power to destroy the elven civilization. He and other Tevinter magisters tried to pass this power off as being gifted to them by the Old Gods when it was the people they enslaved who taught it to them. It stands to speculate how many more spells, technology, and artifacts humans expropriated from elves while enslaving them and denying them access to that same knowledge/resource.

Resistance to settler colonialism in Thedas abounds. There’s the Dalish who engaged in grand marronage, refusing to allow themselves to fall under human authority. They practice what aspects of their culture they could reimagine, recover, retain after over 1000 years of slavery. Although they are the most extreme/obvious example of elven resistance, there are other smaller forms of elven resistance within human society. For example there’s the Halamshiral uprising that occurred in 9:40 Dragon. Connected to that uprising is Briala’s, Empress Celene’s spymaster, group of elven spies who actively engage in subterfuge against human interests. There are also regular uprisings in alienages across Thedas because of poor starvation conditions human rulers keep them under. Lastly there’s Solas’s efforts to undo the Veil which will necessarily kill most of the people in Thedas and presumably lead to elves gaining back their powers/immortality.

Things that I didn’t address above but will in subsequent pieces were elf-blooded folks (human-elven children) and how they fit into the settler regime, the layered relationship of Orlais colonizing their neighbors/ Ferelden nationalism in light of them all being on stolen elven land, the desire of the Qunari to settler colonized Thedas for themselves, as well as how claims to land are complicated by Dwarves and their presences under Thedas. I would also like to address the complications of even the claim to a place called Thedas considering that before the Veil the entire dimension and geometry of the world was radically different to the point where one could question whether “Thedas” was even a thing then (similar Abelas’ issue with calling modern elves “elves” even though they are missing their ingrain magic abilities).

Overall the continent is in a state of unrest and depending on world state there have been elves named Hero of Ferelden and Inquisitor respectively upsetting the taken for granted social positioning of elves. With many elves moving to follow Solas, and the ongoing rebellions in places like Denerim, and the uncovering of large fragments of elven history over the course of the Dragon Age, I’m sure calls for elven sovereignty or more engagement in petite/grand marronnage will be seen in Thedas.

What Does it Mean to be a Weapon of War?: Settler Colonialism and Black Labor

What does it mean to be a tool? This is a question that comes up in Afrofuturist conversations on the regular via discussions of AI, robots, their humanity, and exploitation. The question is rooted in the knowledge that under chattel slavery, stolen Africans were legally and socially rendered as objects, a process I call chattelment. Orlando Patterson alternatively called this objectification ‘social death’. As it would be taken up in afro-pessimist theory, social death creates an ontological divide between humans and non-humans, the non-humans of course being Black folks. Our history under chattel slavery amounted to us being used like cattle, lawnmowers, or shovels to till the land and produce profits and resources for our slaveowners. As a scholar interested in the intersections between Turtle Island Indigeneity and Blackness I wanted to think about this idea of “Blackness-as-technology” in the context of US settler colonialism and it brought me to a very interesting, and to be honest, disturbing question which is: what does it meant to be a weapon of war?

This question came to me through two observations. The first observation is the common saying from Black folks that “we built this country.” Its obvious that when people say this that the are referencing all the labor our ancestors did that created the infrastructure, food systems, and buildings that make up the United States today. This fact also feeds into many of the calls of reparations for hundreds of years of unpaid labor we did on this land. I have critiques of our claim to citizenship and reparations through the logic of labor, but suffice to say I think it’s important to talk about who did the labor that built this nation. It provides in some ways a moral argument for why Black people should be valued at all in this society. Also I think it ironically makes some Black people feel powerful to know that we had the ability to do all of this in the first place. Its a way of coping with our position in this society using the concepts and ideologies avaiable to us. 

The other observation I made is how Black people rarely ask what exactly is ‘this country’ that we built when discussing Black labor in the making of America. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz in her book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States sought to “…tell the story of the United States as a colonialist settler-state, one that, like colonialist European states, crushed and subjugated the original civilizations in the territories it now rules.” Patrick Wolfe further argued that settler colonialism is derived by a logic that seeks to “destroy to replace.” And as anyone who looks into US history will see, the replacement of indigenous societies with the United States was achieved through genocidal violence and warfare. As I argued in a tweet some time ago:

So taking that history into account, when we go back to consider what “this country” is and what we were building during our enslavement, it’s clear that we were part of a war effort, and a crucial part at that. When we consider the population of slaves versus settlers for most of colonial history and the diversity of labor we were put to do across the colonies, one thing becomes clear: European invaders would have never achieved conquering the continent or likely survived at all without the institution of slavery. One of the things that drove the transatlantic slave trade was the fact that enslaved people could be put to use doing things that free whites, free Africans, and indentured servants couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Without chattel slavery who would till the plantations, breastfeed white children, transport produce to market, dig irrigation, build houses (including the big white one) all without taking up any of the social or physical spaces they are bringing into being? Nobody. Without those tools, figurative and literal, White settler invasion attempts would not have been as successful and in some cases might have failed all together like it should have.

The pattern of our labor and bodies being used to carry out genocide carries on even in the present day. Consider all the willing and coercive contributions that Black people make to the US economy and its culture. We gifted the US with Hip Hop, Jazz, and other music genres that are now global industries. Mass incarceration from the era of peonage till today has provided the state and its corporate allies with cheap and free labor. African American Vernacular English ensured that American English language culture would grow to be much more flexible and malleable than what the British left them with. Our food culture similarly has had profound effects on how Americans eat. And even in politics, the Black folks who joined the state apparatus, such as Obama, ensured that the nation wouldn’t come apart at the seams after while men got done looting the place for personal profit. In all those ways and more our labor, given, paid for, and stolen ensured the survival of America and its sociocultural relevance. Black people have always been the supply lines, ration distributers, infirmary, and often cannon fodder for their genocidal war effort. Yes, we built this country, but for every bit that we gave white settlers’ stranglehold over this continent and us increased and that’s not a pleasant thing to come to terms with. 

I can discuss the sociological aspects of Black people’s relationship to white settler invasion all day, but I wanted to instead focus on how one deals with this structural relationship emotionally. Like many other African descendent people who spend time studying African diasporic history, I see our people as survivors of a horrific set of institutions and that we fought hard to keep as much of our humanity as possible in the face of white slaveowners’ attempts to extinguish our humanity. This is all still true, but is complicated by the consideration that our labor and presence was used in an attempt to wipe out a whole hemisphere worth of civilizations. I think about Robert Oppenheimer’s lament “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”, except that unlike him we never chose to come to or be part of this hellscape. That’s a heavy burden to carry even if we all know that it’s not our fault but squarely that of white settlers. In a practical sense it forces me to think about people like the Buffalo Soldiers who through economic coercion, ended up being the vanguard of the settler invasion of the west. The indigenous people they killed certainly didn’t deserve to die, but they also didn’t deserve to be put into the position to even commit those kind of acts. I am left with an unsettling sense of unfairness when thinking about these relationships and histories. Thinking about things like the Buffalo Soldiers challenges what we mean by concepts such as decolonization and liberation.

If liberation is at its base about freeing oneself from an oppressive system, then our knowledge of our relationship to white settler colonialism needs to be taking into account. I think for many people, liberation is primarily articulated in relationship to your community specifically. For Black people on Turtle Island liberation means something more than simply freeing ourselves from the grasps of our slaveowners. Because we are important parts of the genocidal war machine, our liberation also impacts indigenous peoples and their struggle against the same system. For example, the struggles we have with Black liberals who want a place within the settler system has added meaning in that their need for inclusion not only fucks us but also means continuing to contribute to the settler project. Solidarity between Black and Indigenous peoples in this context is not a matter of convenience or “we are all suffering”, but a matter of our oppression upholding theirs and vice versa. Its not a matter of non-Black people demands for our labor, but coming to terms with the true weight that our labor holds over this whole system beyond just our relationship to whiteness, and how refusing to do labor is an even more revolutionary act that we often give it credit for.

There is no delinking the structural relationship between Blackness and Indigeneity as I see it. That relationship make me personally want to see this system burn even more. Not only did you kidnap my ancestors and tried to destroy our humanity, you forced us to help you commit heinous crimes against other colonized people, and even today everything we produce for our own survival is appropriated and consumed by you vulture so you can continue your reign of terror. Fuck that. What does it mean to be a weapon of war? It mean that if I deny you my body and my labor, I’ll get to see your ill concieved effort rot like it should have all those years ago and that’s a liberating thought indeed.


Against Black Inclusion in Facial Recognition

By Nabil Hassein

Researchers have documented the frequent inability of facial recognition software to detect Black people’s faces due to programmers’ use of unrepresentative data to train machine learning models.1 This issue is not unique, but systemic; in a related example, automated passport photo validation has registered Asian people’s open eyes as being closed.2 Such technological biases have precedents in mediums older than software. For example, color photography was initially optimized for lighter skin tones at the expense of people with darker skin, a bias corrected mainly due to the efforts and funding of furniture manufacturers and chocolate sellers to render darker tones more easily visible in photographs — the better to sell their products.3 Groups such as the Algorithmic Justice League have made it their mission to “highlight algorithmic bias” and “develop practices for accountability during the design, development, and deployment of coded systems”.4 I support all of those goals abstractly, but at a concrete level, I question whose interests would truly be served by the deployment of automated systems capable of reliably identifying Black people.

As a longtime programmer, I know first-hand that software can be an unwelcoming medium for Black folks, not only because of racism among programmers, but also because of biases built into code, which programmers can hardly avoid as no other foundations exist to build on. It’s easy for me to understand a desire to rid software of these biases. Just last month, I wrote up a sketch of a proposal to decolonize the Pronouncing software library5 I used in a simple art project to generate rhymes modeled on those of my favorite rapper.6 So I empathized when I heard Joy Buolamwini of the Algorithmic Justice League speak on wearing a white mask to get her own highly imaginative “Aspire Mirror” project involving facial recognition to perceive her existence.7 Modern technology has rendered literal Frantz Fanon’s metaphor of “Black Skin, White Masks”.8

Facial recognition has diverse applications, but as a police and prison abolitionist, the enhancement of state-controlled surveillance cameras (including police body cameras) to automatically identify people looms much larger in my mind than any other use.9 Researchers at Georgetown University found that fully half of American adults, or over 100 million people, are registered in one or another law enforcement facial recognition database, drawing from sources such as driver’s license photos.10 Baltimore Police used the technology to identify participants in the uprising following the murder of Freddie Gray.11 The US government plans to use facial recognition to identify every airline passenger exiting the United States.12 Machine learning researchers have even reinvented the racist pseudoscience of physiognomy, in a study claiming to identify criminals with approximately 90% accuracy based on their faces alone — using data provided by police.13

I consider it obvious that most if not all data collected by police to serve their inherently racist mission will be severely biased. It is equally clear to me that no technology under police control will be used to hold police accountable or to benefit Black folks or other oppressed people. Even restricting our attention to machine learning in the so-called “justice” system, examples abound of technology used to harm us, such as racist predictive models used by the courts to determine bail and sentencing decisions — matters of freedom and captivity, life and death.14 Accordingly, I have no reason to support the development or deployment of technology which makes it easier for the state to recognize and surveil members of my community. Just the opposite: by refusing to don white masks, we may be able to gain some temporary advantages by partially obscuring ourselves from the eyes of the white supremacist state. The reality for the foreseeable future is that the people who control and deploy facial recognition technology at any consequential scale will predominantly be our oppressors. Why should we desire our faces to be legible for efficient automated processing by systems of their design? We could demand instead that police be forbidden to use such unreliable surveillance technologies. Anti-racist technologists could engage in high-tech direct action by using the limited resources at our disposal to further develop extant techniques for tricking machine learning models into misclassifications,15 or distributing anti-surveillance hardware such as glasses designed to obscure the wearer’s face from cameras.16

This analysis clearly contradicts advocacy of “diversity and inclusion” as the universal or even typical response to bias. Among the political class, “Black faces in high places” have utterly failed to produce gains for the Black masses.17 Similarly, Black cops have shown themselves just as likely as white cops to engage in racist brutality and murder.18 Why should the inclusion of Black folks in facial recognition, or for that matter, the racist technology industry be different? Systemic oppression cannot be addressed by a change in the complexion of the oppressor, as though a rainbow 1% and more white people crowding the prisons would mean justice. That’s not the world I want to live in. We must imagine and build a future of real freedom.

All of the arguments I’ve presented could be (and have been) applied to many domains beyond facial recognition. I continue to grapple with what that means for my own work as a technologist and a political organizer, but I am firm already in at least two conclusions. The first is that despite every disadvantage, we must reappropriate oppressive technology for emancipatory purposes. The second is that the liberation of Black folks and all oppressed peoples will never be achieved by inclusion in systems controlled by a capitalist elite which benefits from the perpetuation of racism and related oppressions. It can only be achieved by the destruction of those systems, and the construction of new technologies designed, developed, and deployed by our own communities for our own benefit. The struggle for liberation is not a struggle for diversity and inclusion — it is a struggle for decolonization, reparations, and self-determination. We can realize those aspirations only in a socialist world.

Nabil Hassein is a software developer and organizer based in Brooklyn, NY.

  1. https://www.digitaltrends.com/photography/google-apologizes-for-misidentifying-a-black-couple-as-gorillas-in-photos-app/; https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/28/joy-buolamwini-when-algorithms-are-racist-facial-recognition-bias
  2. https://www.dailydot.com/irl/richard-lee-eyes-closed-facial-recognition/
  3. https://petapixel.com/2015/09/19/heres-a-look-at-how-color-film-was-originally-biased-toward-white-people/
  4. https://www.ajlunited.org
  5. https://pronouncing.readthedocs.io/en/latest/
  6. https://nabilhassein.github.io/blog/generative-doom/
  7. https://www.ted.com/talks/joy_buolamwini_how_i_m_fighting_bias_in_algorithms/
  8. Frantz Fanon: “Black Skin, White Masks”.↩
  9. https://theintercept.com/2017/03/22/real-time-face-recognition-threatens-to-turn-cops-body-cameras-into-surveillance-machines/
  10. https://www.law.georgetown.edu/news/press-releases/half-of-all-american-adults-are-in-a-police-face-recognition-database-new-report-finds.cfm
  11. http://www.aclunc.org/docs/20161011_geofeedia_baltimore_case_study.pdf
  12. https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/privacy-pia-cbp030-tvs-may2017.pdf
  13. https://www.rt.com/news/368307-facial-recognition-criminal-china/
  14. https://www.propublica.org/article/machine-bias-risk-assessments-in-criminal-sentencing
  15. https://codewords.recurse.com/issues/five/why-do-neural-networks-think-a-panda-is-a-vulture; https://cvdazzle.com/
  16. https://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2015/08/07/eyeglasses-with-face-un-recognition-function-to-debut-in-japan/
  17. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation”, Chapter 3, “Black Faces in High Places”.↩
  18. https://mic.com/articles/118290/it-s-time-to-talk-about-the-black-police-officers-who-killed-freddie-gray


Why the Idea of Galactic Wars Over Resources Make Little Sense

So I was involved in a Twitter convo some months ago regarding a Polygon piece on No Man’s Sky and how video games conceptualize space travel and exploration as basically resource consumption. Ben Kuchera’s central point was that:

"I personally really enjoy No Man’s Sky and will continue to, but it’s a bummer that the entire game is based around that unquestioned consumption on the part of the player. There is no way to create on these worlds, no way to look for balance or to react to each unique environment. For a game that’s supposed to be about the wonder of the infinite, it’s a shame that the only tools given to the player are those that let them take whatever they want."

My thinking in response to that was these tweets:

Thinking back on that last tweet drove me down a rabbit hole that I’ve now decided to drag all the rest of y’all into *cackles*.

My discussion above and the Polygon one about resource extraction and exploitation was based on our assumptions about how resource acquisition happens here on Earth and the wars, genocides, and slaveries it often incites. Most sci-fi plots that happen on Earth or in space work under the assumption that resources for building civilizations are limited, that groups of sentient beings compete for them, and that war is one of the likely outcomes of these competitions. One of my favorite shows, The Expanse, is wholly driven by the oppression, slavery, and war brought about by competition between Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planet’s Alliance over resources like water and oxygen. Elite: Dangerous, which includes a nearly 1:1 recreation of the Milky Way Galaxy, has its metagame driven by galactic empires competing over resources. You can think of many other examples, but basically resource competition is a mainstay in space sci-fi writing, video games, TV, and movies.

Thinking about Elite: Dangerous specifically in reference to my last tweet got me thinking about something. If, in the example of Elite: Dangerous, we have reliable and fast travel to the other ~400 billion stars in the galaxy and their planets, then why would galactic political units ever need compete with anyone else over resources? I’m working off the assumption that nothing exotic or rare like Element Zero or Deuterium is necessary for space travel/life and that there’s a decent mix of types of planets in each section of the galaxy. But seriously, if we have access to an estimated ~100 billion planets which potentially all have resources then why, like the the aliens in Independence Day, would we have to fight, let alone interact, with any other species or faction on a galactic scale? The only other explanation is that we conquer because we can.

This assumption that most galactic civilizations are going to be at war with other people somehow I suspect is driven by how we imagine our own history, particularly modern colonial history. When doing fieldwork at the Buffalo History Museum I saw an exhibit about the “frontier” aka Seneca homelands where they noted how settlers and Natives “competed” (read: settlers slaughtered Native communities) over land and resources. Now I’ve driven on the Interstate 90 and offshooting roads quite a few time and you can see on those rides that there’s TONS of land that isn’t being occupied by anyone. It’s clear that when various Indigenous nations signed treaties allowing Europeans to share occupation/use of space there was enough for everyone….that is if you were interested in sharing. White settlers, and Americans as their ideological descendents, did not believe in sharing space or responsible use of resources.

White settlers and colonizers in general often spin a narrative of “there wasn’t enough for all of us” to obscure the reality which is that European state making institutions are driven by expansive conceptions of sovereignty, which is a form of political control that grants the sovereign exclusive right to control a particular space. Mid to modern European history is driven by this form of ownership and state making. When British settlers showed up in North America, they brought that idea of ownership with them, and like all the colonizers before them, they claimed every piece of land they could whether they could use it or not. To obscure this greedy and genocidal land claim logic they both make up lies that there wasn’t enough for all of us AND that humans are basically wired that way, neither of which are true.

Back to my point about galactic wars over resources, what happens if we don’t assume that every galactic civilization is like white settlers back home? How would Bioware write humanity differently if they didn’t assume that humans would snatch up every planet they can get their hands on for the sake of it? And how could we develop conflict differently in sci-fi plots if we didn’t assume that nearly every civilization has the same drive for resources and expansion that Europeans on Earth do? What new game mechanics can we develop if we don’t center the story on obtaining resources and consuming them? These questions that can make for VERY interesting and different media only exist if we decolonize our ideas around resources and consumption.

What media have y’all seen, read, played that you think gets away from these harmful assumptions and imagines other kinds of galactic futures?

Imagining One of Many Decolonial Futures

I have always been a big fan of technology, comics, movies, video games, anime, and all the other things you would expect a Black nerd to like who grew up in the 90s to mid 2000s. Although my actual job is to shepherd undergrads while eventually write a long ass dissertation, I always found time to follow technology, comic, and video game news. There are now A LOT of great publications out here, many of which I follow, including sites like The Verge, Polygon, Engadget, Android/WindowsCentral. Although I really value the insights of the people in the tech blogging industry, there are a lot of problems with how the mainstream reports, discusses, and understands technology and how it impacts our world. As it has been noted in many other discussions there is a lack of attention given to how these current and new technological realities intersect with already existing systems of colonialism, cishertopatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and others that destroys lives every day. There’s also a lack of imagination of other worlds, other possibilities that don’t take these systems of oppression as taken for granted realities. Decolonized Tech seeks to be an online space to imagine these other worlds and possibilities. Continue reading