This week Cory Doctorow shared a podcast reading of his short story “Affordances“, originally published in Slate. It’s a compelling look at how bad technology, in this case facial recognition software paired with awful politics and systemic racism, leads to tremendous harm.
The story makes the point by exploring all the people in a facial recognition ecosystem, from low-waged climate refugees who are paid to monitor facial recognition errors in an overseas boiler room, to cops whose facial recognition systems and risk-assessment scoring institutionalize algorithmic racism, to activists whose videos of human rights abuses on the US border are disappeared by copyright enforcement bots deployed by shadowy astroturf organizations, to the executives at the companies who make the facial recognition tools whose decisions are constrained by automated high-speed trading bots.AFFORDANCES: A NEW SCIENCE FICTION STORY THAT CLIMBS THE TERRIBLE TECHNOLOGY ADOPTION CURVE
Cory also linked to “Not Just a Number“, a response to the story from Nettrice Gaskins that ties the story to struggles today and shines a bit more light on the hopeful resistance to the worst bits of bad technology.
And that is where “Affordances” shines, as it explores how we can use those same tech tools to reclaim our agency. There are many possibilities for countering repressive and oppressive aspects of technology through activism, art, and education. Though their work may not be as familiar as Mark Zuckerberg’s, the people doing these things are heroes.
The heroes of “Affordances” are the people who rediscover their humanity and take control of it. Ninety-two recalls his former name, Muhammad. Yolanda looks for ways around online video filters to inform others about social issues. Dion, a black cop, tries to help “high-risk” youth Caleb. Caleb gets between Dion and Yolanda, who is trying to enter the U.S. on a flotilla with South American migrants. Such fiction as “Affordances” opens up dialogue about the impact of A.I. on vulnerable or marginalized groups.Not Just a Number – What Cory Doctorow’s “Affordances” shows about efforts to reclaim technology. By Nettrice Gaskins
“Affordances” gives a series of relatable accounts of the struggles of living in a world permeated with bad technology and offers a bit of hope and hints about how we can make it better.
Caleb glared at him. “You know that’s bullshit, right? I mean, I’m not even out of high school and I know that’s bullshit. Everyone they arrest is black. They ask a computer: ‘What do all the people we arrest have in common?’ And the computer answers, ‘All the things black people have in common,’ and that gets used to arrest more black people. Meanwhile, since white folks don’t get arrested for bullshit like this, the computer tells you there’s no reason to arrest them for bullshit like this.”
He turned around and looked at the kid. “You know, I expect you’re right about that.”“Affordances” – A new science-fiction story about how technical restrictions start with powerless people before coming for us all. By Cory Doctorow