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Poetic Computation: Detroit #2

by Neta Bomani and Taeyoon Choi

“I think that’s a very important part of what we need in this country, is that sense that we have lived through so many stages, and that we are entering into a new stage where we could create something completely different.” — Grace Lee Boggs [4]

Reading about Detroit in reputable publications, we encountered glorification of the city’s past with the innovation of the assembly line — the days of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler and how their abandonment — closed factories, vanished jobs, vacated homes — took a city from being the center of American modernization as the Motor City, to a ‘museum city’ — something we noticed as visitors to the Henry Ford Museum, where we were among many tour groups, experiencing artifacts from the glory days of industrialization.

To the left, fully assembled cars lined up for delivery; to the right, a Black person who worked in a factory is prepping parts for painting in Detroit. Photos via the Library of Congress.

What’s troublesome about a linear narrative of growth and decline with an unsettling sense of nostalgia is how it centers industry over people and serves as a cautionary tale with patriarchal and religious undertones about how the mighty can fall. This is a story about people — not abandoned buildings or failed factories — people. We need to center how the people who not only left but also were left behind were affected by the violence and negligence of capitalism. The people of Detroit are strong and resilient people who continue to take care of their community throughout various cycles of expansion and abandon. We need more stories about them at the forefront of the discussion.

Melanie Hoff, Lauren Gardner, Neta Bomani, Taeyoon Choi, as organizers from the School for Poetic Computation who will host a summer camp in Detroit, August 2019, we come to the city as outsiders who acknowledge our limited view of Detroit. In both our visits to Detroit, first in February and second in June of this year, we made the effort to supplement our readings with conversations with local community members. We learned more about racial and class segregation in the city and especially felt the tension around gentrification, displacement and efforts of inclusion and representation — tension which was often amplified by our position in the space as outsiders with the privilege to funding, resources, knowledge, networks, and affiliations with cultural organizations.

A Detroit resident building a local mesh network. Photo via Detroit Community Technology Project.

Conversations with local organizers and social practice artists emphasized their long-term commitment to communities by building infrastructure for the commons and creating modes of exchange which operate apart from a capitalist logic of growth and exchange. This is fundamental to the collective culture and history of Detroit to which we have entered the gravitational pull and find ourselves contextualizing how our relational, pedagogical and social approaches are part of a larger, ongoing movement.

In the words of Angela Davis, “the most powerful way to acknowledge and carry on in a tradition that will move us forward is to simultaneously affirm its historical continuity and effect some conscious historical ruptures.” [2]

For that reason, we would like to acknowledge the work of those who came before us in doing similar, critical and inspiring work: Grace Lee Boggs, Jimmy Boggs, the Detroit Community Technology Project, specifically Diana Nucera, Tawana Petty and Janice Gates, Ron Watters, Russel Stewart, Ill Weaver, Nora N. Khan, Taylor Renee Aldridge, Mariame Kaba, Omayeli Arenyeka, the Black Panther Party, and so many others who we neglect to mention due to our limited perspectives.

We would also like to acknowledge the Anishinaabe, Objibwe, Odawa, Botawatomit, Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes indigenous to the geographical area of Detroit.

The reason we are able to hit the ground running in Detroit is largely because of the creation of Detroit Summer. Grace Lee Boggs and Jimmy Boggs started Detroit Summer in 1992 with the intention of it being a multiethnic and intergenerational collective in Detroit which takes direct action to transform community members and communities by confronting problems with creativity and critical thinking, more specifically with the organization of community gardens, media arts projects, community-wide potlucks, public forums, and other events. Many people who went through Detroit Summer as youths — like Ron Watters and Ill Weaver — went on to either create or participate in Allied Media Projects’ programs and/or build their own grassroots, community-centered organizations like the Talking Dolls and Complex Movements.

A black and white portrait of Grace Lee Boggs sitting on a couch in her Detroit home in 2012. Photo via Sean Bonner/Flickr.

In a 2007 interview by Bill Moyers, Grace Lee Boggs talked about the evolution of the city of Detroit and how communities are growing up around the idea of restoring our relationship to the land by building greenhouses and growing healthy food for the community in a way that reframes our way of relating to time, history and the earth. [4]

We intend to do the same by extending the relationship between time, history, and the earth to include technology through workshops, lectures and field trips where we ask the following questions:

  • How can we fundamentally change our relationship to computers and data?

Computation and technology at large are often used as a scapegoat to hide people’s desires for governance and power, as well as their refusal to be held accountable. Poetic computation, in this context, is crucial for changing our relationship with technology. Poetry’s uselessness — its inoperability — is its most potent capacity. Poetic computation is an invitation to create something entirely useless with technology. This approach is an invitation to change our relationship with technology, which translates to our relationship with governance, ownership, attachment, and joy. If our students learn to use computers with more care and program it to their imagination, we may be able to step outside of the oppressive cycles of consumption and theft of ownership. We believe poetic computation can lead the way to challenge the accelerationist and hyper commercial design of a tech mediated worldview.

Coding isn’t something that only happens behind the screen

“We need database literacies, algorithmic literacies, computational literacies, interface literacies. We need new hybrid practitioners: artist-theorists, programming humanists, activist-scholars; theoretical archivists, critical race coders. We need new forms of graduate and undergraduate education that hone both critical and digital literacies. We have to shake ourselves out of our small, field-based boxes so that we might take seriously the possibility that our own knowledge practices are normalized, modular, and black boxed in much the same way as the code we study in our work.” — Tara McPherson [3]

During our Detroit visit, we hosted a series of workshops under a new curriculum revolving around the poetics of code, or code poetry. One of the workshops, Folder Poetry, is an introduction to command-line interfaces in order to reframe our relationship with computers and write poetry based on UNIX folder and file structures. Melanie Hoff developed Folder Poetry based on an introduction to SFPC Code Societies classes, which she led with Nabil Hassein. The workshop was successful in introducing the idea that attendees are already always programming as a way to demystify coding as something only highly technical people do.

Melanie Hoff leading the Folder Poetry workshop in Detroit. Photo via Russell Stewart/Talking Dolls.

Some participants gave feedback which challenged us to not only work more closely with students to build foundational knowledge in order to start morphing personal relationships with technology, but also further address how the history of computation — who was included and excluded in historical narratives — impacts technology and capitalism; and provide concrete examples of how to use art and technology to create authentic connections and facilitate critical thinking.

Considering the specific context of Detroit, and the conversation with local partners, we decided to center the camp around the theme “Uncovering Technology” to encourage a more meaningful relationship with technology by analyzing the layers of abstraction that make it possible. In the process of abstraction, the inner workings of technology are obscured, and thereby exclude most people from understanding what’s going on. If we can’t understand it, we can’t fix it, take care of it or truly own it. What would it look like to cultivate a more caring and imaginative kind of technology for each other and ourselves?

After reflecting on our existing curriculum for our ten weeks intensives as well as Code Societies, a two-week intensive, we agreed on UNIX folder and file structure is a fundamental piece of computing technology that isn’t accessible for most people. However, we acknowledge the history of UNIX, and computing in general as it relates to race and gender. Our concern extends to its site of inception, Bell Labs, and it’s forefather Alexander Graham Bell, whose influence spans across the institutions and communities at all intersections, including disabled, deaf/hard of hearing communities, as one Folder Poetry workshop participant pointed out.

There are many computing paradigms and languages in the world, but there’s one thing that’s rarely questioned, which is UNIX. It’s most often taken as a default of all modern computing. There are a variety of alternatives, including Windows, FreeBSD, recently ChromeOS and more esoteric, experimental derivatives such as TempleOS, but the ethos of UNIX permeates in all operating systems in its dominating influence on file structures and data types.

We are planning to teach basic UNIX commands because it’s an effective method of learning computation for the first time and can change students’ relationships with technology dramatically. However, we don’t consider UNIX as a baseline and want to address and further complicate the history of UNIX, as summarized in Tara McPherson’s essay titled “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX.”[3]

Unix developers Dennis Ritchie (left) and Ken Thomposon who is sitting and working on a PDP-11 computer. The first version of Unix ran on the PDP-11/20 in 1970. Photo via Magnus Manske/Wikimedia.

McPherson outlined the history of UNIX as it was developed in the early 1960s when movements against cultural and political oppression were rising, including by not limited to, the Stonewall Riots; assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy; founding of the Black Panthers and Young Lords; and the execution of Che Guevara. McPherson argued that while media or “code” studies have been treated separately from social, cultural or ethnic studies, the development of both UNIX and the sociopolitical landscape of the time were incredibly interdependent as “both exist as operating systems of a sort, and we might understand them to be mutually reinforcing.”

Example of lentiular postcards depicting Black American life during the Jim Crow era. Photo via the New York Times.

McPherson also argued that structures of digital computation develop in part to “cordon off” and “contain” race. In understanding and contextualizing how the development of UNIX at Bell Labs and race are related, McPherson used the example of lenticular postcards in the Jim Crow era to introduce the concept of lenticular logic which functions as covert racism, or rather colorblindness:

“The popularity of lenticular lenses, particularly in the form of postcards, coincides historically not just with the rise of an articulated movement for civil rights but also with the growth of electronic culture and the birth of digital computing (with both — digital computing and the Civil Rights movement — born in quite real ways of World War II). We might understand UNIX as the way in which the emerging logics of the lenticular and of the covert racism of colorblindness get ported into our computational systems, both in terms of the specific functions of UNIX as an operating system and the broader philosophy it embraces.” — Tara McPherson [3]

UNIX was founded on the simple design philosophy of doing one thing well. There are several guiding principles authored by the founding developers to define what “well” means, but one of the chief principles is the rule of modularity. The rule of modularity says to write simple parts connected by clean interfaces. Modularity also says to write code so that each part is independent, and that it should be easy to replace one part with a completely different implementation without disturbing the other.

Ford service building on 7310 Woodward Avenue in Detroit, MI in 1968. Photo via Jet Lowe/Library of Congress.

In UNIX, the kernel — the heart of UNIX system which loads into the computer’s memory upon startup and is responsible for ‘hardware memory, job execution and time sharing’ — is separate from the shell, or the programs that interpret commands and act as intermediaries between the person operating the computer and the computer’s inner workings. It is important to note that the kernel is hidden from the person operating the computer. McPherson argued this kind of modular thinking underscores a worldview where troublesome parts might be discarded without disrupting the whole. This mentality is also present in societal systems. Consider how segregated bathrooms operated as racial kernels under the principle of “separate but equal.”

“The urban center of Detroit was more segregated by the 1980s than in previous decades, reflecting a different inflection of the programmer’s vision of the ‘easy removal’ or containment of a troubling part. Whole areas of the city might be rendered orthogonal and disposable, and the urban Black poor were increasingly isolated in ‘deteriorating city centers.” — Tara McPherson [3]

We can also extend this consideration to how the organization of computational and societal programs into isolated bits where the program's operations are designed to be “invisible to the user” arise out of an individualist, capitalist, and carceral society. Fordism brought about factories and assembly lines and programming languages followed suit. Modularity in programming says to separate one “neighbor” from the other, the same way partisan politics divide people into “left” or “right.” This kind of binary reduces human relation and dishonors difference. Therefore, we can’t study code without linking it to culture:

“We must understand and theorize the deep imbrications of race and digital technology even when our objects of analysis (say, UNIX or search engines) seem not to “be about” race at all.” — Tara McPherson [3]

Rosa Parks among a group of people picketing in front of General Motors headquarters in Detroit in 1986. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Connecting McPherson’s essay back to our theme of “Uncovering Technology,” we ask the following questions:

  • How does the concept of modularity lead to alienation of users, and theft of ownership of our tools and data? How can we uncover technology by understanding modularity?

Doing good for and by the people

In the pursuit of hosting Poetic Computation: Detroit this summer in Detroit, it’s important to reiterate we are for entering the community with respect and understanding of the lived experiences of the people who exist there by doing internal work to listen to, learn with and provide support to local communities. To be clear, we want to do right by the community. In “How to think differently about doing good as a creative person,” Omayeli Arenyeka wrote against creative savior complex. According to Arenyeka, people acting with creative savior complex prioritize themselves and the tools they use for creation over the actual good being done. It isn’t enough to only do good by utilizing and sharing our technical and creative skills.

We have to show up and care for one another at the bare minimum. That requires an honest understanding of what care and help mean in various contexts. While care is a skill and practice of emotional intelligence, it doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of teaching others (technical skills). Care might look like watching a friend’s child while they take a class, organizing a carpool for friends, giving an extra $20 to the commissary fund of a friend who is incarcerated, or making dinner for a friend.

As Arenyeka pointed out, one way people evade accountability for their complex, is by failing to acknowledge what they want to get in return for the good they do.

For me, Neta, I want to see the abolition of prisons and the dismantlement of all white supremacist systems. I also want to be involved in a shared ethos community where caring for people is the core value of our society, rather than capitalist values like individualization which in turn foster alienation and the devaluation of the domestic labor of mothers and other caregivers, and criminalizes and punishes people who have been harmed and/or done harm by disposing of them via hyper policing, surveillance and incarceration.

Neta Bomani (left) and Tawana Petty (right) at Allied Media Projects in Detroit. Photo via Russell Stewart/Talking Dolls.

Our relationship with Tawana Petty and Janice Gates of the Detroit Community Technology Project has been both thought-provoking and rewarding for myself (Neta) as a Black femme person who has largely been isolated by both my race and gender in tech spaces. Through our relationship, I understand that despite growing up in the Midwest and in the state of Michigan, despite being a low-income Black person, despite being relatively new to programming, I am not a Detroiter. That means that I’m not directly part of the community who I’m trying to help.

But in my effort in understanding how to support the people in Detroit — through listening to and speaking with locals, personal research, reading and education, and being physically present in the community — I’ve found our struggles overlap and feel unified in our struggles, from the DCTP’s organizing against the surveillance Project Greenlight to the organizing myself, SFPC teacher Nabil Hassein and many others have been doing with No New Jails. We find ourselves in a critical position to move away from the factory model that was forced upon our communities and make something new. We are rejecting the values of modularity, productivity, and incubation that isolate, exhaust, starve and kill us. By building a relationship and sharing useful tools with each other, we as Black and Brown people are building a system where more nuanced perspectives and struggles are centered in service of repairing and healing people in our communities.

Taeyoon Choi (left) and workshop participant (right) at Allied Media Projects in Detroit. Photo via Russell Stewart/Talking Dolls.

For me, Taeyoon, I want to make new friends and learn with them. I want to be accountable and avoid over-promising. I want to learn from Detroit-based practitioners, how to live a life that’s in accordance with my values. I want to build community and solidarity between cities and organizations. I want to read Pleasure Activism by Detroit-based activist adrienne maree brown with my new friends, discuss how to take action and take care of ourselves. I want to help myself and others who are feeling burned out and instead create value and meaning with joy, grace, and excitement? Technology may play a part in it, but it’s not the end goal for our convening.

Poetic Computation: Detroit is a chance to rethink our relationship with technology. As we plan for the week-long program in August, we are asking a series of open-ended questions. How can we fundamentally change our relationship with computers and data? Can we have a more equitable and reflexive relationship with technology? Can we unlearn the privileges we carry? How can we steward technology? Can we cohabitate with computers like taking care of plants? Can we empathize with machines? Can we stay alert and critical about decisions, governance, and abuse of technologies? Can we create artistic technologies and poetic computation? We are excited to work with a group of teachers from SFPC as well as Detroit-based activists, artists, and designers.

We are planning a few public events in August. Join us for the Poetic Computation: Detroit student showcase on August 25 from 4–9pm at Talking Dolls (RSVP). Please stay tuned for further announcements via our mailing list. Poetic Computation: Detroit is supported by the Knight Foundation.


  1. Benito, Shandra. “Alexander Graham Bell and the Deaf Community: A Troubled History.” Rooted in Rights, 8 May 2019, http://rootedinrights.org/alexander-graham-bell-and-the-deaf-community-a-troubled-history .

Further reading

  1. Bailey, Moya Z. “All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave.” Journal of Digital Humanities, vol. 1, no. 1, 2011.



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