Abolition means the creation of something new
The history of big data and a prophecy for big data abolition
There is an impulse to google this to figure it all out. To make sense of my deepest emotions, to give language for the sense of impending doom that I feel. That we all seem to feel. Typing words into a search bar has become a cathartic action, a release. If only temporarily, we have an answer.
Answers. For the questions that are immediate: how do we meet the needs of all people in a world where injustice has been automated? How do we break free from this algorithm of neoliberalism, of terror, where protest is the only language of the unheard? Subway fare hikes, the loss of mobility, they expose more than discontent, but confinement, control, the end of self-determination — these are the questions that the people of Chile seek to answer in the streets. As people resist more than a tax, the price to communicate, to collectivize, to resist in Lebanon, As the umbrellas rise for the elusive promise for democracy in Hong Kong in a world seems to be enveloped by fascism.
The google search bar is a false oracle, a dead end for seeking truth. But our questions remain — the questions that nag, tear, sear, scorch, the questions that assert themselves, that mobilize.
The last ten years of my life has been forged through questions, seeking, fighting, searching for life in a world that demands death, human bodies as its tribute. The dead never question, the enslaved do not speak, they just do. I was drawn to data because within it held this power for different people to ask different questions. To not just give voice, but the power of inquiry and interrogation to those who have been long silenced by entrenched power structures that incarcerate, subjugate, eliminate robbing us of livelihood but most importantly, our self- determination. Our agency. Agency is itself a question, or a set of questions. Of personhood, or possibility, of futurity. A pandora’s box aflame with the possibilities of unclaimed, uncontested freedom.
Agency is itself a question, or a set of questions. Of personhood, or possibility, of futurity. A pandora’s box aflame with the possibilities of unclaimed, uncontested freedom.
Today, the Data for Black Lives Movement is a network of 4,000 scientists and activists working to make data a tool for social change instead of a weapon of political oppression. Through the use of this metonymy, in naming — data as a weapon — we expose a larger truth, the army tanks, rifles, and ammunition used against our communities for generations are today disguised under the veil of “new” technology that is nothing new, but only accomplishing previous militaristic and colonial purposes. We agree there is an everyday terror we fight against when we say Abolish Big Data — to do away with the facial recognition, biometric data collection, credit scoring, risk assessments, in order to push for something truly new. Today, worldwide, discrimination, fascism, neoliberalism is a high-tech enterprise.
But where did this all start for me? How did I even get here, to this work, to this place, to Het HEM. The process was spiritual, existential. It began with the realization for me that we needed to speak life in a world where the algorithm, the ethos, demanded death. To name injustice, racism, to make the invisible visible where the success of this system is dependent on denial and deception.
I started Data for Black Lives three years ago out of desperation. In the beginning of the 2016 election in which I knew what was coming because of my work on the ground and in communities all over the American South — the idea came to me — almost like a bird landing on my windowsill. And in the span of its wings, the arch of its back, the path it flew, it looked to me like freedom, and felt like it too. It was an idea whose time had come, an idea that was locked up in my ribcage — finally breaking free. I was desperate to see the thing I loved the most — data and technology, to be used to fulfill what I believed was its true promise of social change — to be liberatory. I was desperate for a new form of activism that could truly change conditions and empower people — I saw how many of the organizations and movements I worked for and was involved in had become consumed by the same toxic cultures, cannibalistic practices that we fought so hard against.
I knew this idea would be about something more than data, more than algorithms, but about people, about asserting life. It needed to be about something deeper — something deeper. The vagueness of this phrase itself was prophetic, but I knew that even in the very beginning what was needed was a cultural change, a spiritual change. I knew that the mass incarceration of the past and present, rise of fascism that was underway in 2016, and the weaponization of data that was to come could never be solved by policy change alone.
Our movements had tried this and failed. These policies merely reflected our values — collectively as a society we had consented to the denigration of human life through military, technology and capital. We were all fitfully asleep under the blanket of neoliberalism. And too many of us didn’t even have the language to explain what was going on, why we felt this way, why we blamed ourselves for the hopelessness and despair we felt about our futures. What we needed was to wake up — not in the use of the social media phrase of being “woke”, but.. Something deeper. We needed to come alive to a new moral consensus, a new theology and praxis of life, future, hope, that would come against the algorithm of neoliberalism that was dependent on our collective loss, fear, despair and death.
We needed to come alive to a new moral consensus, a new theology and praxis of life, future, hope, that would come against the algorithm of neoliberalism that was dependent on our collective loss, fear, despair and death.
In summer of 2016 we held our first Data for Black Lives retreat — myself, and my two friends who helped me turn this movement into a 5013c non-profit — a mathematician, and a political strategist who had worked on multiple Presidential campaigns. Both, very logical, rational people, who as we planned the very first Data for Black Lives conference to be held at the MIT Media Lab in just a few months, were also hungry, desperate for the truth, a deeper social change, a vision to ground our work.
We needed something different and I did something very different to start our retreat. I knew beyond our desperation was a collective one. Voices, crying out in the wilderness. Voices, speaking from beneath graves, fragments of bone, teeth, skin fibers, dust rattling and making a sound from ashes. Like the questions, the dead will also assert themselves. Death and life, as you can probably tell, have always been a consistent theme in this work for me, from the very beginning. And I began our meeting with a reading, an allegory from the bible, that as I write this, I realize was prophetic.
In the story, God is leading Ezekiel, the prophet, but symbolic of the collective “we”, through a valley, a desert. The valley was vast and scattered through it were massive amounts of bones. Mountains of dry bones, indistinguishable from anything once human, alive. The Spirit led him, led us, back and forth among the valley, among the dryness. The Spirit asked him, “Son of man, can these bones live?” He replied, Lord, only you know. And the Lord turned to Ezekiel, probably to Ezekiel’s own surprise and said, prophesy to the bones. Tell the bones: Hear the word of the Lord, I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin: I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. So he, we, prophesied as commanded, and as he prophesied, there was a noise, there was a noise, a rattling sound. And the bones came together, bone to bone. He looked, and all of a sudden, tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was still no breath in them. There was still no breath.
Then he said to Ezekiel, “prophesy to the breath, prophesy and say to it, this is what the sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds, and breathe into these slain that they may live.” Ezekiel prophesied as he was commanded, and breath entered them: they came to life and stood up to their feet — a vast army. These people, they had been dead, but they were beyond death — their bones were dried, and their hope was gone. But now their graves would be opened, and those who were slain were risen, with the promise that God would bring them up from them. Out of graves, out of death, out of the abyss, out of memory, out of nothingness.
I didn’t realize it then, but my words created a new reality — a reality that began inside of me and imparted a new level of possibility on the outside. As a young Black person, sadly, I was used to graves, and so many people I knew, even those seeming to be alive, were dry bones, because of the world we live in. My first time collecting, analyzing and using data was as a 17 year old — after some young people I knew organized a peaceful protest when a high school principal put a student in a headlock — and like the subway fare hikes, whats app taxes, and extradition laws of the global uprisings we are seeing — this singular act of violence revealed a longer historical and technological timeline of injustice, violence and brutality with impunity, without recourse.
And like the protests today, the state came out in full force against my friends and their peers. I will never forget seeing the headlines on national news, on CNN that said — RIOT at Miami Edison Senior High School. Seeing the bodies of children, being slammed against police cars. Helicopter footage of SWAT team vehicles and what looked like armed militia circling the school. All of this in response to students, young people, unarmed, innocent, who only wanted to congregate peacefully in the school cafeteria so that their voices could be heard. I knew then, just as I know now, that unless we found new ways of expressing our political voice, to be heard, and new ways to disrupt the harmful narratives about us that facilitated this level of abuse, our lives would continue to be under assault.
Data became protest when all other political channels were blocked. After being turned away at school board meetings, we took matters into our own hands and surveyed 600 students about their experiences and shared the findings in a comic book. In Miami, it took a while for us to create the policy change to end these abuses, but through resisting, we were able to create a culture change that spread all over the country. Young people in Denver, Colorado, to Knoxville, TN to Chicago, and San Francisco and New York used our comic book. Survey collection was a microphone, a way to provide data that reflected the disparate impact of suspensions and arrests happening in our schools. Data was collective action and accountability for the horrific human and civil rights abuses that had been allowed to occur for far too long.
The prison abolition movement asks the question: how do we create solutions in our communities without recourse to prisons? With this call to action I apply the same lens to big data. How do we dismantle and reimagine industries that concentrate big data into the hands of a few? And how can abolish the structures that turn data into a powerful and deadly weapon?
This is not a call to end the use of all data, quite the opposite. The call to abolish prisons is not a call to abolish accountability, but to abolish the punitive, violent system that simply is not working for our society.
Abolition is a process, not an end goal. It is the rejection of prisons as the “answer” to the most pressing social problems. And this process of Abolition begins in our minds — in our organizations, our academic institutions. It is a new way of understanding the world. It is about chipping away at oppressive institutions rather than helping them live longer. It is about pushing critical consciousness, gaining more resources, building larger coalitions, and developing more skills, more empathy.
Big data is more than a collection of technologies, a vast amount of information and different types of it. It is more than a revolution in measurement and prediction. It has become a philosophy, an ideological regime, about how decisions are made and who makes them. It has given legitimacy to a new form of social and political control that has taken the digital artifacts of our existence and found new ways to use them against us.
Big Data is not new. It is not as novel or revolutionary as we worship it to be. It is apart of a long and pervasive historical legacy and technological timeline of scientific oppression, aggressive public policy and the most influential political and economic system that has and continues to shape our world economy, chattel slavery.
But before we can talk about algorithms, machine learning, and the ways in which these myths are being reinforced and perpetuated in this current moment, we must first discuss the history of big data. We have to tell it’s origin story. What were the economic, imperialistic and colonial contexts that required the level of record-keeping, accounting, and surveillance that have come to define the big data practices of today?
Contrary to popular belief, slavery was not the antithesis to business innovation, and much of what we know about scientific management, management science and finance does not come from the factory floor, the railroad or the steam engine. The big data systems we are familiar with today, used to control, surveil, and enact violence to maintain power structures and ensure profit on a global scale, originated during slavery.
In this discussion, place matters. Right here in the Netherlands is where the brand of colonialism advanced all over the world was invented. In the 1600’s and 1700’s the Dutch East and West India companies were the largest commercial enterprises in the world, with hundreds of ships, thousands of employees, and countless offices across Holland, Asia and the Americas. The VOC & WOC were the first corporations in the world. In proportional terms, they were wealthier and more powerful than Apple, Google and Facebook combined. In many ways the Dutch pioneered colonialism, created a blueprint for globalization, and developed new data practices to maintain this massive operation. And although this history has been largely ignored and erased, especially in a country like Holland that sees itself as post racial — these big data practices predate the analytical tools we use today.
In “Accounting for Slavery: Masters & Management”, Dr. Caitlin Rosenthal writes that “Planters control over enslaved people made it easier for them to fit their slaves [enslaved African people], into neat empirical rows and columns.” The abstraction of the catastrophic loss of human life, and the necessary torture required to maintain plantations, was needed to serve the owners who were removed from the daily abuse of the literal rows and fields of the cotton, sugar and tobacco plantations they owned.
Data moved up and down hierarchies, akin to the ways in which CEOS and boards are today responsible for, but never accountable to the violence they inflict. Big data was necessary to distance oneself from the violence and the gore capitalism of slavery.
Data moved up and down hierarchies, akin to the ways in which CEOS and boards are today responsible for, but never accountable to the violence they inflict. Big data was necessary to distance oneself from the violence and the gore capitalism of slavery.
Through coming to the Netherlands these past few months on my own research endeavor, parallel to the work of the Shock Forest Group, I was surprised to learn so much about myself, my history and family’s history. The Dutch were the first to colonize what is today known as the British Guyana, which was once the same land as Suriname. The sophisticated, and one would even say impressive dutch record keeping practices continued even after the land was traded to the British. One practice was the use of standardized monthly reports.
The monthly abstract for the plantation disturbingly named “Hope & Experiment” in Guyana reveal rigorously calculated operations for the month. There was one line for each day, with columns for the many different categories of enslaved men, women and children. They include: “In the field,” “Watchmen,” “House servants”, “Carpenters,”, and “Children,” “Invalids”, and “Runaways.” This daily process of dehumanization was deeply numerical — and below these monthly abstracts were identical reports for livestock. The “Negro Account” and “Livestock Account” used the same methods of taking an inventory, calculating increase and decrease, purchase, sale, birth, death, slaughter, murder. With little difference made for woman, man, child, oxen, goat and cattle.
In the Netherlands, although there were no plantations here in the metropole, slavery existed behind closed doors, and the within the walls of medical and scientific institutions where Black bodies were used as cadavers to justify the brutal logic of slavery and the data to establish the false- evidence that race is biological, rather than a social construct, as I hope we all know. The databases maintained by the Dutch dating back to the early 17th century have been so maintained, so pervasive, more sophisticated than even modern day excel sheets and institutionalized than modern bureaucratic processes, that 400 years after slavery the descendants of slaveowners still receive compensation for the abolition of slavery.
The databases maintained by the Dutch dating back to the early 17th century have been so maintained, so pervasive, more sophisticated than even modern day excel sheets and institutionalized than modern bureaucratic processes, that today, 400 years after slavery the descendants of slaveowners still receive compensation for the abolition of slavery.
But across the colonies, the most necessary form of accounting was in the wielding of information as a weapon to create fear, distrust and to neutralize collective action amongst enslaved people. From removing verses from the bible that rejected slavery, and using amputation, whipping, and torture to ensure no one could read, write, or communicate at all. Information systems developed during slavery were created with the intention of eclipsing the networks that allowed enslaved people to assert their strength in numbers. To become educated and informed, to escape, to organize, to fight back. Account books were used to keep track of weapons, “one lost axe could be could a sign of wastefulness or carelessness, but several in a short period of time could be a harbinger of violence and rebellion.”
All of these examples indicate the ways in which big data was born out of bondage. They emphasize my earlier point that big data is not as new or as innovative as we worship it to be, it is part of a long and pervasive historical legacy and technological timeline that began with chattel slavery. We often say that no algorithm is neutral. That algorithms are opinions embedded into code. And this history reveals the extent to which this is true.
By definition an algorithm is a set of step by step instructions to solve a problem. A recipe is an algorithm: a list of instructions or a process to make the dish, the ingredients that make up the dish, and a result — based on what we define from the beginning of the recipe as success. Whether we want to focus on making something healthy or something that tastes good, regardless of health benefits — these decisions are determined by a question: what we are optimizing? This is the same question asked in the development of machine learning models today, that is, if you are doing data science right.
Computational algorithms are layered, complicated, their ingredients are not just the raw data that is fed into them and the result is not as simple as the outputs that come out of them: scores, ratios, GPS routes and Netflix recommendations. But history and values are what influence inputs and outputs, and most importantly, the very models that are trained and developed- the algorithms themselves.
When I do this talk in the United States, I talk about how these histories and values are influenced by the legacies of slavery — the physical, geographic existence of enslaved African people and the brick and mortar institutions that have been maintained to this day. I talk about how zip codes are a proxy for race — initially used to organize the country by the postal service for efficient mail delivery, have become artifacts of policies of segregation established in the early 20th century as free Black people left the South and migrated to cities in the North.
Through a data-driven process called redlining, their communities were literally labeled on maps as hazardous — and through aggressive public policy as well as white mob violence so powerful that they have withstood the test of time, Black communities became sacrifice zones. 74% of the communities labeled “hazardous” in 1933 are the under resourced, highly policed, and most incarcerated communities today.
A bank, a college application, a patient algorithm used by doctors to determine who gets care, a risk assessment that determines your prison sentence, or surveillance system do not need to know your race, as long as they have your zip-code. These big data systems have extended the shelf-life of the archaic, racist, aggressive public policies of the past. In this case, we don’t need hordes of people or a President to say, Make America Great Again, this sentiment is already inherent to the political feedback loop.
But because I am here must ask: what is inherent to the political, social, and cultural feedback loop of the Netherlands? Since visiting I have learned from the incredibly resilient Afro-Dutch community that structural racism is perpetual, pervasive even, but hidden behind collective denial. In her seminal text, “White Innocence,” Dutch scholar and activist Gloria Wekker writes extensively about the psychological legacy of slavery and colonialism.
But because I am here must ask: what is inherent to the political, social, and cultural feedback loop of the Netherlands?
She builds on Edward Said’s paradigm of the cultural archive to make visible the often invisible and violent ways in which racism is perpetuated in the Dutch cultural imagination. Black Pete is merely symbolic of the deep denial of racism, yet reveals how the denigration of Black people is disturbingly mocked, cherished and performed. Culture reflects a a violent dissonance, the result of the ways in which racism — like slavery in the colonies that fueled the wealth and preeminence of the metropole — is hidden, but in plain sight.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in an individual, or members of a group, making them question their own memory, perception and sanity. The very people who defend Black Pete also deny the violence of the structural racism of the Black, Muslim and immigrant experience in the Netherlands. The experience of being “allochtonen”, the other. But this is an experience that Wekker cannot avoid — she recalls a memory that she had repressed for so long — a time when she was arrested at a train station and taken to jail, and though she did nothing wrong, it did not matter, to be Black in the Netherlands, is to be a problem.
“ Noteworthy about this deeply humiliating event is, first, that in southeast Amsterdam, 95% of the population is Black; thus everyone in the subway and everyone in the prison was Black… while all the officers were white and overwhelmingly male. The southeast was at that time one of the two neighborhoods in Amsterdam where people could get frisked at random for carrying firearms, which, coupled with the disproportionately gendered and racialized division of public labor, makes for an explosive situation in encounters between authorities and citizens. Second, in this narrative, the main theme is not sexualization of me as a Black woman, but of criminalization: I was evidently seen as a troublesome Black woman, badly needing disciplining. No matter what class position I imagined I occupied, in its intersection with race and gender, I was, in the eyes of white police officers, by definition lower class, jobless, having no urgent matters to attend to, of no significance at all.”
To an American, this experience is all too familiar, and even more insidious knowing that such racism is taught in Dutch public schools as only happening in the United States, never the Netherlands.
The Dutch cultural archive is a “A repository of memory” in the heads and hearts of people in the metropole, but its content is also silently cemented in policies, in organizational rules, in popular and sexual cultures and in common sense everyday knowledge, and all this is based on four hundred years of imperial rule. I read all of these contemporary domains for their colonial content, for their racialized common sense. The content of the cultural archive may overlap with that of the colonial archive, in which the documents, classifications, and principles and practices of governance pertaining to colonies are stored.
Where is the cultural archive located? In Amsterdam? In the ports where the slaver ships set off across the triangular trade route? The capital province of Zeeland? In the library? Wekker responds, “The cultural archive is located in many things, in the way we think, do things, and look at the world, in what we find (sexually attractive), in how our affective and rational economies are organized and intertwined. Most important, it is between our ears and in our hearts and souls.”
“The cultural archive is located in many things, in the way we think, do things, and look at the world, in what we find (sexually attractive), in how our affective and rational economies are organized and intertwined. Most important, it is between our ears and in our hearts and souls.”
And today the cultural archive is stored, reinforced and automated through the Big Data systems of the current political and economic state. The cultural archive is big data, weaponized in its most potent form. There is nothing more powerful than technology to veil, disguise, transform, deceive and deny violent conditions of existence, to deny people of their sanity, their agency, their personhood. A country famed for its incredibly progressive social policies, while at the same time known for having one of the largest facial recognition databases in the world, with the data of over 1.3 million individuals and 2.2 million photos. In a country where biometric data is required, the real cost of applying for residency.
Because these systems are not transparent, guarded under lock and key of denial and deception — we don’t need to guess whose lives are at the mercy of these systems. Those who must be managed, who must be policed, who must be controlled — the other. As I said last Monday at a hearing that if we win, would ban ban face recognition in the first state in the US, Just because a technology is new, doesn’t mean it’s innovative, especially those that jeopardize our civil and human rights.
What does it mean to abolish big data? To do away with someone we cannot see, but something that too many of us, can deeply feel? How do we break free from the algorithm of neoliberalism, exploitation, slavery and terror — a feedback loop that depends on bodies, human life as its tribute? What does it mean to speak life through technological death and destruction? Where the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty for the pulling down of strongholds?
What does it mean to abolish big data? To do away with someone we cannot see, but something that too many of us, can deeply feel?
I believe that the work of making data a tool for social change instead of a weapon of political oppression is the work of culture change. Spiritual change. It is about changing ourselves — rejecting the programming imposed on us, transforming who we see as experts, and as humans. It is about building coalitions, and specifically in my work — it is about mobilizing and empowering a multiracial, multi-generational, interdisciplinary movement with the skills, empathy and ability to create a new blueprint for the future. It is about creating new standards for big tech companies like Facebook and Airbnb by building political pressure. Empowering directly impacted people to themselves combat efforts in cities to consolidate the power of data in the hands of a few. To prevail as David against Goliath. Movement building is not the most high-tech solution, but it works.
Data for Black Lives was founded on the belief that the opportunity we have with data to abolish, reimagine and recreate new structures of knowledge production, new forms of decision making and new ways of relating to each other are infinite. Because of the enormity of the threat this is scary and unprecedented, the discourse has been very negative and fatalistic. This does not reflect the agency of our communities and our movements. We don’t want people to give up and get overwhelmed. We want to create alternatives.
Prison abolitionist Dylan Rodriguez defines abolition “as a dream toward futurity vested in insurgent, counter-Civilizational histories — genealogies of collective genius that perform liberation under conditions of duress.”
The Abolition of Big Data begins with the strike of a match, setting aflame the cultural and political archives that seek to infiltrate the future, burning the foundations unto which this global institution of anti-Black racism was built. It is a funeral procession, grieving the loss of the dead. It is a ritual to mourn the loss of a way of life to which we have all become numb, a system to which we have all given our consent. It is a celebration of life, of possibility, a new path full of uncertainty, but of bold and courageous vision, of which we make the road by walking.
And as I conclude, I leave you all with a question: what are we optimizing? A future where the injustices of the past are automated and reinforced: a past defined by slavery, dehumanization, greed, violence and control? Or a future vested in justice, fairness, solidarity, a world where the needs of all people are met?
I believe that abolition is against certainty. Abolition is against permanence. The permanence of the prison cell, the guard tower, the weapon and its factory. Abolition is about asserting life in a system that demands death, casualties, human bodies as its tribute. Abolition is for us right now, while simultaneously being for generations to come. People we may never meet, or see, but we must will into existence, just as our ancestors willed us.
I am confident that a new world is possible, a world that we can begin building today, right here and right now. Where the once dead are alive, where those who have been asleep are long awakened, where we all rise, together, a great and powerful army.
And I invite you all to join us in this effort. To reclaim data as protest, data as accountability, and data as collective action.