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Poetic Computation: Detroit–Day 1

Words by Taeyoon Choi and Neta Bomani
Photos by Charlie Chioma Okwu

The Poetic Computation: Detroit is a 10 days educational program that is taking place in Detroit between June and August of 2019. The program’s primary mission is offering learning opportunities for Detroit-based practitioners to explore the creative use of technology. The curriculum theme Uncovering Technology asks “What would it look like to cultivate a more caring and imaginative kind of tech for ourselves and each other?”

Poetic Computation: Detroit took place at Talking Dolls, an experimental artist studio located on Detroit’s east side.

The blog posts are created by Taeyoon Choi and Neta Bomani, two of the four co-organizers of the program including Lauren Gardner and Melanie Hoff. We each have specific responsibilities in education and curriculum (Melanie), experience and production (Taeyoon), operations and logistics (Lauren) and community outreach and documentation (Neta). Our roles often overlap, as one of us can be working on community outreach, installing software on the Raspberry Pis, setting up a classroom, shopping and cooking for a group meal, monitoring the group’s social dynamics and calibrating the strategy at any moment. Most computational technologies consist of three parts: Input, System and Output. The co-organizers, in collaborating with teachers are building a computational system for the students. If the co-organizers, teachers, and the city of Detroit are the Input, experience and curriculum is the System, and the Output is students’ learning experience. We plan to make daily blog posts in the hope of uncovering technology as well as the organizing methods of the School for Poetic Computation.

Co-organizers Taeyoon Choi and Lauren Gardner introducing the program.

We had an open call for students and selected a cohort of Detroit-based practitioners. We introduced the School for Poetic Computation’s history and mission. We acknowledged the land of Anishinaabe people, currently known as Detroit. We reviewed the code of conduct and welcomed all participants to space. We talked about our intentions behind coming to Detroit.

Taeyoon: As an initiator and co-organizer of the Poetic Computation: Detroit, I want to acknowledge a series of encounters that lead to the Poetic Computation: Detroit program. I visited the Talking Dolls studio in October 2017, by invitation of a Detroit-based organization. I was inspired by the space and the types of works that are created by the members and the community. In June 2018, I met with the Complex Movements collective, their work and approach remain inspiring for my work. In December 2018, I met with the Detroit Community Technology Project members via the Tech Zine Fair, co-organized with Mimi Onuoha. These three groups of artists and organizers showed the way for resiliency against exploitive capitalist systems, and creative strategies towards the equitable present. I wasn’t particularly interested in the past or the future of Detroit. I was also not interested in the narratives that inflate Detroit as a potential for capitalist accumulation and growth. I remain interested in the present moment of Detroit and the people who live in it. I think about ways of learning and teaching as a reciprocal act of generosity.

Tawana Petty

Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty, a poet and anti-racist social justice organizer based in Detroit, kicked off the first class. Tawana spoke about her work as the Data Justice Director at the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP). She collaborates with a network of activists and community members to fight against the systemic injustice that manifests within extravagant technologies such as a city-wide surveillance system. We invited Tawana as the first speaker because we wanted to learn from her work for empowering the local Detroit community to have a better understanding of technology. Facial recognition technologies, when they are employed as a surveillance tool, create a misleading impression of safety, at the cost of privacy for the vulnerable communities.

Tawana Petty speaking to the students of Poetic Computation: Detroit.

In Seeing, Naming and Knowing published by The Brooklyn Rail, writer and critic Nora Khan described Project Greenlight as “the neutral, floating orb actively produces a constantly evolving simulation of society as it will function. In this simulation of future happening, people might well be empty models moving around elegantly (ideally) but choppily (in practice) from grid block to grid block. There is a reason for such reduction of human complexity to achieve statistical ends, and it is not some kind of a conspiracy.” Khan’s suggestion to check the inequities that are modeled after simulations resonate with us. Khan proposes “In understanding how a machine sees us, we might be able to make strategies — visual, conceptual, or material — that we can use to intervene.”

In order to intervene and resist the use of computation for dehumanizing communities, we need to redefine what technology is. Instead of an automated, depersonalized, adversarial future of technology, Tawana suggested returning to more humane technologies. If we follow the dictionary definition of technology as the ‘application of scientific knowledge for practical purpose,’ we can apply what we learned through the scientific knowledge of social relations, and repurpose existing technologies to examine complex social problems. Sometimes technology can be as simple as a chair. Tawana said, “move from paranoia to power. Green chairs, not green lights. Come out on your porch and sit out there and see each other in our neighborhoods. Talk to each other. Look out for each other. Don’t invest in extractive technologies.” We can read more about Power Not Paranoia in the Our Data Bodies Project.

Following the theme of our session, Uncovering Technology, we are investigating many inequalities embedded in the technology and the culture of the tech world at large. We remain critical of technology. However, technology is not the center of the problem nor the solution. Tawana suggested looking beyond technologies. “Don’t be naive — watch out for yourself, but acknowledge that there are very real reasons people turn to crime in a city without access to clean water, quality public schools, housing, and jobs.” We think poetic computation, as opposed to surveillance capitalism computation, can be a way to find humanity between community members, strangers, and citizens. Poetry is a vehicle for ethical inquiries. If we refuse to be quantified and stratified by the oppressive and exploitive systems, we can build ‘consentful’ technologies for poetic justice. Consent is a mutual understanding of differences and individuality.

Tawana suggested students trust each other and honor the ways to ‘be seen, but not watched.’ We decided the theme of uncovering technologies to see beyond and underneath the glossy surfaces of technological futures. Tawana’s class corresponds closely with Expose Surveillance Art Build, a class by Detroit-based designers Andrea Cardinal and Danielle Aubert who will lead a workshop on Thursday about making protest signs against surveillance. While we don’t have the solutions to the urgent issues at hand, we believe in the power of education. We designed the curriculum of Poetic Computation: Detroit to connect theory, practice, history and current issues.

Kristen and Antajuan (sitting) while Nabil (standing) helps them through a Raspberry Pi setup question.

Nabil Hassein

We are inspired to think differently about diversity and inclusion in technology. Inclusion in technology doesn’t necessarily mean equitable relationships with it, Nabil Hassein, who taught later in the day, said. “Perhaps there are some technologies that should not exist in the first place.”

After a group dinner in the space, Nabil Hassein started his class called An Introduction to Social Computing with an introduction about himself and how his perspectives changed about technology. Born and raised in Northern Virginia, he spent a significant amount of time with computers from a young age, playing video games, studying math and computer science. After a year as a high school math teacher, he worked primarily as a software developer until he got disillusioned by the tech industry. He’s been actively involved with the movement for Black Lives and No New Jails NYC. He spent the summer teaching programming to high school students. In the fall, he will start doctoral studies in media, culture and communication at New York University.

Nabil spoke about the history of computing, ranging from weaving machines to war machines to spreadsheets. In response to the theme of Uncovering Technology, he stressed the importance of challenging the pacifying metaphors that are often used in the technology industry. For example, he said, “the cloud is just someone else’s computer.” We can demystify technology by contextualizing it within its material and ecological reality. Nabil also said “resource extraction and consumption are unsustainable, but they are obscured. The materials for computing come from the Earth and mainly the Global South. They are made available through exploitative systems such as mines and factories with terrible working conditions. Humans are essential to the manufacturing process and are the ones who put computer hardware parts and circuits together.”

Students responded to Nabil’s talk with enthusiasm. Kristen referenced the reading for the class titled “Anatomy of an AI System” where she learned that Bolivia is the place where lithium is mined and how she hadn’t thought about how much it takes to put our technology together, especially since people throw their phones away every year or so. Nabil said because of factors like this, the tech industry is unsustainable. An alternative to consumption-focused technology is possible. There are grassroots activists who maintain obsolete technologies. There are products that are designed to last a long time. Again, technology itself is not the core problem, it’s the social and economic system that prioritizes short term profit over long term responsibility to the environment.

After the lecture, we jumped into programming. The students are a mix of beginners and intermediate technologists. Nabil started by offering a friendly introduction to error. “In programming, most of the time, your code will be broken. When your code is broken, your compiler will give you an error.” We learned the fundamental concepts including variables, function calls, input and output, text data (strings). numeric data (ints; floats not included), datatype conversions, conditionals, loops, libraries and randomness. We used Python 3 on Thonny IDE, as it’s a default software included in Raspberry Pis. After 90 minutes hands-on session consisting of a few ‘code-along’ and some ‘playtime’, Nabil concluded by asking students about their experience of coding, and how their imagination of computing’s possibilities was changed by the class.

Neta (standing in the center), Chen (left) and Gerald (right) talking about how they personalized their Raspberry Pi interfaces.

The class ended on a high note, with students feeling more comfortable with the idea of programming, and cultural contexts for Uncovering Technology.

Public events

Poetic Computation: Detroit is supported by the Knight Foundation and realized in partnership with the Talking Dolls and Detroit Community Technology project.

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School for Poetic Computation—since Fall 2013.

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