[15.0] The Great A-cake-ening (Part 3)
Fighting FICO and the French
Just over a year ago, I attended my last IRL public lecture. Full-throated in its perennial malfunction, the 2 subway line squeaked me downtown; I successfully executed a slick, cross-platform transfer to the local 1 train at Times Square, making it to my destination just in time for the talk. (I know these MTA minutiae matter to you too. We’re all gay for public transport.)
“Thank you, everyone, for being here and for braving an impending public health crisis,” said the speaker. Oracular. I was at Data & Society, a research center studying the social effects of technology. The lecturer, Yeshimabeit Milner, Founder of Data for Black Lives.
In her presentation, “Abolish Big Data,” Milner exposed how algorithms (and its designers) have transmuted chattel slavery into the prison-industrial complex present today. She dissected and disproved the founding myth and purpose of algorithms as told by Silicon Valley, in which the rationality and progressivism of tech has optimized the equation input ⇒ output in the service of social progress. Milner’s corrective agrees that input may ⇒ output, but the ⇒ itself is informed by history and values. What are we optimizing for? What output and outcomes do we desire?
To begin to answer these larger inquiries, Milner asked the following, somewhat smaller question: What necessitated the record-keeping, accounting, and surveillance that we associate with Big Data today?
The answer is the corporate giants of colonialism like the Dutch East and West Trading Companies. At their peak, Milner explained, these conglomerates were larger than Google, Apple, and Facebook combined. Responsible for the transport and sale of millions of enslaved African people, these companies and related institutions (like plantations and sugar refineries) developed contemporary management science and financial methods.
Through extensive record-keeping of the “value” and “depreciation” of the people that colonists enslaved, the rows and fields of these spreadsheets were created to reflect the rows and fields that turned a profit. These quantifications helped those complicit to “distance oneself from the gore of capitalism and the violence of slavery.”
Information was a weapon, used both as obfuscation and intimidation. Bible verses proving the sin of slavery were removed. Cutting-edge tech interests thus shaped religion according to what they wanted. Meanwhile, weapons on plantations were conspicuously tracked and the practice made known in order to prevent uprisings.
“Information systems were created with the intention of eclipsing networks that allowed enslaved people to assert their strength in numbers, to become educated and informed, to organize and fight back,” Milner said, concluding that “Big Data was born out of bondage.”
To Milner, Big Data is at once technology and ideology. Present day, black-box algorithms continue to serve white supremacy through surveillance and secrecy. The existence of apps like Clearview AI or the partnership between Amazon and ICE are more recognized examples using opacity to their advantage.
But FICO scores, too, qualify. They govern who can access housing, subsidized student loans, and other necessities. The company—it’s not a federal entity—claims its algorithms don’t discriminate, but it has a vested interest in keeping some people’s scores high and others’ low. And, given the continued effects of redlining, in which ZIP codes correspond to race, FICO can use geographic area as a stand-in for race and “risk” while claiming neutrality and rationality.
“Big Data has become an ideological regime about how decisions are made and who makes them,” Milner continued. Why should a corporation hold as much data as it does, inspecting the most granular and intimate data (far beyond MTA routes) to authorize whether we have housing or not, or go to college or not? Instead of this contemporary whatthefuckery of a system in which corporations collect and profit off our activity, people should have control over their data collectively through trusts, whose trustees would have an ethical, dare I say fiduciary obligation to share data according to the stipulations of the trust itself. Giving permission to an open-source vaccination project to access your DNA sequence, for instance, but declining a police department’s request for the same.
OK, you might ask, isn’t this meant to be the cake-clusion? Well, yes. Weren’t we talking about decadence and imperialism? Yep! What does this have to do with cake? Also yes.
All roads lead to cake; Milner frames a recipe as an Ur-form algorithm. It has a set of inputs and instructions with the aim of a particular goal: a particular taste, nutritional value, etc. And we know from parts one and two of the Great A-cake-ening—and Milner affirms—that the inputs and outputs (what are we optimizing for?) are socially and historically determined.
Circling back to Versailles, cakes and food were technologies of the state that, through their decadence and the literal wealth of ingredients that went into the menu at the royal court, were optimizing for state power by impressing other dignitaries. “Advanced” “civilizational” and culinary innovations hid the dehumanizing and lethal practices that undergirded them. Only the finished products (cakes, buffets, and so forth) were revealed to the public and open for consumption. The infrastructure (slavery, transatlantic trade, kitchens) lay concealed, as did the culinary algorithms (recipes).
To Dutty Boukman, a Vodou priest and early leader of the Haitian Revolution, the infrastructure was the Achilles’ heel. The twelve-year conflict, the only successful revolution by enslaved people that led to the founding of a free state, opened with a religious ceremony before the armed struggle began. In August 1791, Boukman and others sacrificed an animal; they gave a solemn oath to follow through with revolt. Boukman framed their mission in explicitly religious terms:
The Good Lord who created the sun which gives us light from above, who rouses the sea and makes the thunder roar—listen well, all of you—this god, hidden in the clouds, watches us. He sees all that the white people do. The god of the white people demands from them crimes; our god asks for good deeds. But this god who is so good demands vengeance! He will direct our hands; he will aid us. Throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears, and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of all of us.
Boukman and followers then burned refineries and cane fields to destroy the system that enslaved them. Over three days, 184 sugar plantations burned.
The First French Republic and its National Assembly were established a year later. In an attempt to appease its colony, the Assembly emancipated the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) and granted them full French citizenship by 1794. The decree applied to all French colonies. Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution during most of the conflict, became governor, leading Saint-Domingue as French domain.
Yet that “peace” didn’t hold for long. French imperialism still reigned. Napoleon fought the British in Egypt, eventually finding his way to Paris to declare himself emperor. He sought to reinstate slavery in the colonies, using the profitability of the system to fund his territorial expansion by military conquest.
L’Ouverture ordered formerly enslaved people back to plantations. He thought the reinstatement of a sugar-based economy could provide enough capital (and therefore power) to counter Napoleon’s ambitions and keep him from totally annexing the colony and reinstating slavery. Yet the attempt to return to the brutality of the plantation system, even with slavery not legal in name, catalyzed L’Ouverture’s downfall. Slavery and war had killed hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved people and had destroyed much of the territory. L’Ouverture lost popular support; Napoleon’s forces took over the colony and exiled L’Ouverture to France.
The French hadn’t learned their lesson, though. They reinstated slavery in nearby colony Guadeloupe. Fearful of a similar fate, the formerly enslaved people of Saint-Domingue, led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, finally overthrew the French, declaring independence in 1804. The new country was named “Haiti,” which in Indigenous Arawak means “land of high mountains.”
To W.E.B. DuBois, the Haitian Revolution, including its attendant infrastructural destruction, had massive ripple effects in Europe. He argued that the bankruptcy of the West Indian sugar economy through the Haitian Revolution led to considerable political changes in England. “Without this pressure of economic forces, Parliament would not have yielded so easily to the abolition crusade,” he posited.
Yet colonialism remained very much a thing. For one, the sugar industry simply migrated to other British colonies. The British East India Trading Company used God-talk to justify the development of the sugar industry in Bengal (what would later become parts of India and Bangladesh). A Company head preached to shareholders:
It seemed as if Providence, when it took from us America, would not leave its favorite people without an ample substitute; or who should say that Providence had not taken from us one member, more seriously to impress us with the value of another.
Write historians Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus of the sermon, “It might not be good theology, but it was very good economics.” Tbqh, that’s just called Christian imperialism. There’s a direct through line from the “Providence” of sugar plantations in Bengal to CLR James’s prologue to The Black Jacobins: “Christopher Columbus landed first in the New World at the island of San Salvador, and after praising God enquired urgently for gold.”
Extraction, extractive infrastructures, have long been shrouded and sanctified under the guise of some salvific, lofty goal. From sugar, cake, and courts to lithium, batteries, and cars today. Big Tech intentionally obfuscates its infrastructure behind metaphors like “the cloud” (in addition to literal camouflage) because infrastructure is one of its greatest pressure points. If people knew the anatomy of an AI system, including the literal fascism employed in an attempt to make a more profitable lithium supply chain for Musk, Bezos, et. al., and acted on, coopted, or destroyed those vulnerabilities, what would our data and tech landscape look like today? Where there’s automagic, there’s smoke, there’s fire.
But infrastructure isn’t just concrete and immutable. It’s dynamic, shifting, roving… beached. Globalized capitalism builds its own infrastructural demise in the name of efficiency and optimization. Sometimes, militant revolutionaries grind the system to a halt at historic sites of war, death, and destruction like the Suez Canal. At other points, a cargo ship captain loops his vessel on a phallic course and crashes his big boat, shutting shit down. Talk about narrative arks, amirite ;)
Whether a brave act of anticapitalism or mere delusion, the Suez SNAFU should force us all to think about infrastructure à la Boukman and L’Ouverture. The “efficiencies” of the market are still literally deadly, and to racist ends! A worship of beefy quarterly profits via outsourcing birthed a continued PPE scramble throughout the pandemic, as well as vaccine nationalism that, through patents, hoarding, and medical colonialism, will keep the coronavirus alive and well—spreading until everyone has equal access. Bring on survival socialism and divorce public health from business interests, I pray!
The world at the close of this Great A-cake-ening trilogy—thinking of limitation as canonical, race and food as technologies, and algorithms as social creatures—is your hyperrealistic oyster-shaped cake. Just, please, don’t resurrect L’Ouverture with TED Talk-esque smarminess like the talking heads do on PBS: “He would have been a fantastic CEO today.” Ew!
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.