Holding ourselves accountable

Anatomy of an AI System“, diagram and essay by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler that attempts to chart all the human labour, data, and planetary resources used to create an Amazon Echo device. From Data Feminism.

I just finished reading this brilliant book by data scientists Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein called Data Feminism, where it proposes a new way of thinking about data science and data ethics that is informed by the ideas of intersectional feminism. Today, when data is being used to discriminate, police, and surveil more than ever, this book invites you to treat individuals and communities beyond data points, and to ask — especially if you are in the field of data science and technology — Data science by whom? Data science for whom? Data science with whose interests in mind? And who’s going to be harmed from this practice of the field of data science — which is overwhelmingly white, male, and techno-heroic — and how are you OK with this? 

I could not especially stop thinking of the last few chapters in the book, where the authors laid out a documentation of their values and their metrics for holding themselves accountable. If you have read my previous newsletter, I have especially been taken an interest in verbalising and documenting personal / shared statements, more so than manifesting, but more towards, as mentioned in the book:

[…] we saw how statements of shared values can become important orientation points, guiding internal decisions at challenging junctures and making ethical commitments public and transparent.

Here are the authors’ metrics for accountability:

  • Insist on intersectionality
  • Advocate for equity
  • Prioritise proximity
  • Acknowledge the humanity of data
  • Be reflexive, transparent, and accountable

From the book, I also learned about the feminist standpoint theory where it “recognises the value of situated knowledge — acknowledging the perspectives and experiences of the knower and how those have shaped the knowledge they produce. Accordingly, we situate ourselves and the learning contexts in which we work.” In essence, what we write, what we produce, can be influenced by where we are socially situated in the world — both our privileges and how we can also be oppressed from the matrix of domination (race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, religion, age, etc.) So from this book, the authors, D’Ignazio and Klein recognised their significant privileges from their whiteness, ability, institutional affiliation, and education, while at the same time experiencing oppression based on their gender. This is a very important perspective that I wished I have encountered while I was still writing my thesis, where I could situate my privileges and the experiences of oppression which had both benefitted and limited me in my research, of which, realistically, all of us have experienced! But I guess it is never too late to learn now, and there will always be other opportunities where I could be able to apply this someday.

But also, to conclude:

[…] values are not enough. We have to put those values into action and hold ourselves accountable time and time again. This constant emphasis on accountability is not easy, and it is not always successful (case in point). It also takes time. Our final metrics are uncomfortable but in some ways constructive: they serve as evidence of the distance between our ideals and our actions, they help us locate the help we need to bridge those gaps, and they help us persist.

The book is available for free here, and I would highly recommend for any of you who wants to interrogate the way we do data and technology — which we should! — to read it.

Reading in my tabs:

  • The four myths of healthy tech.
  • What if we borrow ethical data principles from the field of social work so we will be able to so clearly and explicitly deal with issues of justice and oppression, rather than just treating people and events as just data points? Maybe this is what it would sound like: “Data scientists treat each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity. Data scientists promote clients’ socially responsible self-determination. Data scientists seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs.”
  • “There are two ways forward [to address the great climate migration]: climate reparations or climate colonialism. Reparations would use international resources to address inequalities caused or exacerbated by the climate crisis; it would allow for a way out of the climate catastrophe by tackling both mitigation and migration. The climate colonialism alternative, on the other hand, would mean the survival of the wealthiest and devastation for the world’s most vulnerable people.” On why we need a reparations-based approach to address the coming wave of climate refugees.
  • What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design? Very intrigued about the idea of ‘design friction’, a sort of tool that “would use the alternative futures and storytelling methods from speculative design in order to interrogate the gaps and seams that we uncover through ethnographic research.”
  • Something I am unlearning these days: ‘carceral feminism‘, the idea of mainstream feminism that is leaning on becoming more prosecutorial and punitive — and instead, to focus on addressing issues of harm without replicating and resorting to the tools of violence that are responsible for making us unsafe.
  • “The idea that women and femmes will be neutered of any desire for violence or rage if they become caregivers is, of course, inaccurate. Mothers and caregivers are, in fact, people who get to experience the full range of human emotion. But it is a useful cultural narrative for perpetuating the idea of the Good Mother and, more broadly, the Good Woman: Look, here is the most powerful villain in the Disney pantheon, and even she can learn to quiet her wrath out of love for her daughter.” Whoa, I have never thought of it before, but this is a brilliant essay on the sexual politics of the Maleficent movies and how women are only suited to power if they have children, otherwise, they are just witches.
  • Documentary Mania is a website with hundreds of documentaries you can watch for free. So that’s weekend sorted.
  • Cats have been walking all over our stuff for centuries, and elephants as environmental engineers.
  • I asked you to be human — I am no needier than other people. But the absence of all feeling, of the least concern for me — I might as well go on addressing the birches.”

STATUS BOARD

Verbalising the idea of care

Shirin Neshat’s All Demons Flee. Image description: A black and white photograph by Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat. Hands of individuals wearing all black are seen nestling a sharp weapon, placed in the middle of all of these hands together.

I have been trying to articulate this edition of this newsletter a couple of times over the weekend, only to scrap everything out, which usually explains that I am in currently in a weird place mentally at the moment — so this is a whole garble, forgive me. At the surface of things, I am just like every single one of us out there, regardless of countries and regions and only to be defined by several different contexts — pissed with our leaders’ thirst for power which inadvertently (although I wouldn’t say so!!!) put us all in a fatal rut. 

So first, call to action:

I broke down briefly this morning, thinking of how much I long to hug my nieces and nephews, of whom I could only see through the little Zoom squares — contrary with the pictures of our politicians disregarding social distancing, shaking hands and touching people in the midst of their reckless political campaigning (a 1-year-old died). The rich and the powerful continue to be oblivious of the grief of this all, plundering the future, waldenponding in their mansions, getting bailouts, entirely unaffected by the growing economic cavern. And now this whole technoractic language of it all as we are reduced to data — numbers of positive, number of fatalities, contact tracing, r-naughts, numbers of unemployment — how do we reclaim ourselves beyond data points? How do make sense of all sorts of grief at this point of time — of people we have lost, of the social lives we have lost, of the blurring boundaries of offline and online — provided we have the privilege to be able to be online, of the intensification of class divide, of the growing uncertainties of our employment/unemployment — have you ever thought of the notion of having to work to ‘earn a living’ by itself is undignifed? Imagine being told you have to earn to be able to exist! How do we write when nothing makes sense anymore?

I have nothing much to offer this week except that I have been relearning the idea of care after years coming from a place where it was so foreign. The conversations I had been in last week had made me think that the idea of care, while I have always thought is always possible, would be made possible if we (as in organisations/companies/startups etc.) could step up further and verbalise it. Imagine reiterating the idea and having a framework of care and safety in every process of our work to remind yourself and the people we work with that it is possible to have this safe, respectful space, where we no longer have to absorb and manage someone else’s second hand anxieties, where we could have reasonable expectations of each other, and celebrate each other’s milestones, no matter how small. It’s like having a poster of motivational words to remind ourselves every so often of your goals on your wall, or if you are a Muslim, it’s like playing the Quran recitations so many times the poetry and the values are embedded in our minds, and if we choose to do something about it — in our practice. If we could imagine the idea of care, if we could verbalise it, reiterate it every step of our process — then we could do something about it. And when I am talking about ‘we’, I am not talking about individual employee or a mere member of the organisation — I am talking about how it should begin from the leadership, I am talking about a collective responsibility. 

Yesterday was World Mental Health Day, I was reminded of this line from Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie’s poem, On This, The 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of The Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart, “The trouble with you humans is you’re so concerned with staying afloat. You’re not a boat — you can go under and come up again with those big old lungs.” This week I am sinking into some sort of feelings, but I am recognising that I am not drowning in it. And so, I will resurface when I am ready.

Reading in my tabs:

  • The students left behind by remote learning, and the students exposing the invasive test-taking software through TikTok.
  • “Why are my sides so sore and achy? It’s from crying, I’m told. I did not know that we cry with our muscles. The pain is not surprising, but its physicality is, my tongue unbearably bitter, as though I ate a loathed meal and forgot to clean my teeth, on my chest a heavy, awful weight, and inside my body a sensation of eternal dissolving.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote on grief after losing her father, every bit of her word I could relate to so well.
  • And another one on grief in the digital time, as the author lost her best friend to the coronavirus: “How does one measure the support of digital grief anyway? Would I have loved her more if my “story” had received 400 views? Would our friendship mean more if a few more people had sent crying emojis in response?”
  • “Before the pandemic, I was thinking a lot about how jobs with vocational awe — from librarians to teachers, from pastors to zookeepers — ironically expose the workers with those jobs to exploitation. Complain about pay? You don’t love the job enough. Attempt to unionise to advocate for a better safety net? You don’t love the job enough. Complain about systemic sexism, racism, or other exclusionary practices at your institution? You don’t love the job enough.” PREACH.
  • And on that note, employers need to know how to handle grief, personally and especially collectively these days.
  • There’s this article about ‘data sprawl‘, now that people are starting to work from home and companies are concerned that company data is going where it should not be, as normally “employees using personal devices for work” so their IT executives are worried that “their employees are not following the policies for keeping their data secure.” This reminded me of several discussions I was in over last week on the questions of the cost of equipments and labour now that people start to work from home and use their own devices — are they going to be compensated if their devices break down? What if they have to go buy new devices and fall sick in the process? All in all, that just like the requirements you have for people to work physically in the office, provide your employees all they need to work from home, which means — small stipends to cover for their WFH equipments or Internet access, and do all you need to assess and close the security and control gaps in your remote work setup etc. Policies would be the last thing to implement once you have made sure the gaps are addressed and filled.
  • Another tale of how each of our innovation has considerable human impacts — including, and especially, those that started as a joke.
  • Because we might need it: the best animal live feeds from around the world.
  • “Drowning people / sometimes die / fighting their rescuers.”

STATUS BOARD

A sort of joy

In 2015, the data visualisation firm The Office For Creative Research (OCR), collaborated with the theatre troupe Elevator Repair Service (ERS) to craft a live performance called A Sort of Joy, using the metadata from MoMA’s collection database — all 123,951 of them — as the source material for its script. The performance seemed innocent at first. It started with a group of white men standing in the centre of the room, facing out towards the audience. They wore headphones and had an iPad each in their hands, of which they held out so the audience could see. A group of white women walked in a circle among them, also with iPads in their hands. The men then began to recite the first names that came out on their iPad screens — John (Baldessari, Cage, Lennon, Waters, etc.) then a few long seconds later, Robert, then much longer seconds, David and so on so forth. The women kept pacing around them while having their eyes on the men’s screens, all at the same time without saying a word for a mere three minutes. 

Then there was a ‘Mary’ on the screen, and the women said the name, almost an exclamation. Then it started to make sense to the audience — who previously were probably wondering, why are the men in the inner circle? Why are the women encircling around them like they are to be preyed on? Who are those names being mentioned? — that the names belong to some organisation / community / institution etc. where the representation is skewed towards the male population. They then started to anticipate for more female names, until ‘Joan’ came out in another minute, then ‘Barbara’, then the male names made more and more appearance. We never heard a ‘Khalil’, a ‘Salama’, a ‘Dinesh’, a ‘Eun-Jung’, a ‘Kwame’, or anything that does not remotely represent Western names, because the names being recited belonged to the names of the artists according to the most works in the collection. This is why ‘John’ came first, then more male white names, before we heard a female white name.

The performance — a result of the many ways my brain links information with each other — was what first came to my mind when I watched Netflix’s The Social Dilemma last week. The docudrama, directed by Jeff Orlowski, gave us a picture of the many ways the social media and Big Tech had sown trouble in both personal and societal level. As someone who had the opportunity to be educated in STS (Science and Technology Studies) field in my brief academic years — speaking not from a place of expertise, but more from a place of sharing — I am not here to refute the messages laid out in the docudrama, nor to question the redeeming intention of the tech personalities portrayed in it. 

But I couldn’t help to point out one glaring element that tech industry still lack of despite the years — that became one of the ways that led to this ‘oversight’, this “has a mind of its own” (it doesn’t, your values are embossed in the innovations you built), this “none of us had ever anticipated/intended this” (of course, because you don’t seem to want to listen to others) — and that is the problem of representation. The overwhelmingly male and white (or the intentional hiring of any majority population in any industry) and the persistent assurance that all of this “were never intended” was how Robert Moses came up with an overpass bridge so low that buses which carry people of colour and less affluent could not go through to access the beautiful parks of Long Island. He never intended it, I mean how could he see it — he did not live the very lives of the people he hindered access to the parks to. Oops! The lack of representation of other minorities in tech was also how Black people was classified as ‘gorillas’ in the AI facial recognitiontrans people would get pulled aside at airports for security checkBlack defendants were marked of a higher recidivism than their white counterpartswomen hired less and lesshow people could literally get killed, and how we still have this shit today — can you believe how tired we are?

(And can you believe 1) despite undergoing — I presume, multiple — peer reviews, none of the reviewers ever stood up and said, “hey uhm, I think this is wrong” and 2) the guy who looked the most trustworthy looked like Mark Z??? BYE)

These are just small samples of ‘oopsies’ that happened when your innovations do not consider the real lives of others, and it has to start with representations.

Not only that, Black and PoC scholars had been doing the work and sounding the alarm for YEARS, and in the docudrama we can see the first non-white interviewee showing up only after 50 minutes. The producers knew they had a problem with representation, probably a little bit too late, which is why they threw in the Black dad in the cringe-inducing drama re-enactment, with his appearances being so minor and his lines so few. 

Now — I’m not saying we should not listen to the messages in The Social Dilemma, but you can be in one industry you held in high regard and offer your criticisms in the name of wanting us to do better. The deal with The Social Dilemma is that these problems — fake news, dark patterns, psychological and behavioural tinkering in the name of ‘growth hack’, etc. — seemed to not be seen as a problem unless a prodigal tech bro woke up one day and decided to change the world out of the harms he had been complicit in through his slide deck and TED talks. I’m not saying it isn’t a noble cause, but to go back on the idea that your ideas were built on the shoulders of giants, as what some of us academics had been trained to, always check if someone had done the work before us and always cite cite cite, and if it helps, ask yourselves these four questions before embarking on a project you think you are the first of its kind:

  1. Are you listening to experts and vulnerable communities?
  2. Can you join existing efforts?
  3. Can your technology do what you say it’s going to do?
  4. How does your technology shift power?

If you like The Social Dilemma and found it compelling for many of your own reasons, I would suggest that you follow and read the works of these scholars of the sociocomputing field: Ruha Benjamin, Safiya Noble, Joy Buolamwini, Sarah Roberts, Marie Hicks, Sasha-Costanza-Chock, Zeynep Tufekci, Charlton McIllwain, Anita Say Chan, Wendy Chun, Lisa Nakamura, Virginia Eubanks, and Beth Coleman — and because by no means this is an expansive list: Mozilla has a thread on the works of more of these amazing scholars and some resources you can read if you want to know more about algorithmic biases.

Walking into the new week with this much freedom, vigour, and wholesomeness:

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Catherine D’Ignazio’s and Lauren F. Klein’ s Data Feminism, Sarah Burton’s The Strange Adventures of H, and Pablo Neruda’s Los Versos del Capitan.
  • Listening: A client recommended me to the music of Malian guitarist Samba Touré, and it’s all I ever play the entire week.
  • Watching: Ocean Vuong on the yin/yang of creativity — yin is akin to “fishing with a large net, casting your net wide and waiting for the bounty to fill” and yang is “the decisive moment where decisions are made where order happens — architectures built in service of a final goal — yang is when you harvest the fish and chop it up and send it to market and produce it and tend to communities or the rest of the larger world.” Also, Enola Holmes.
  • Food & Drink: The enhanced lockdown was lifted yesterday (yay!) and despite still being wary of the rising cases nationwide, I managed to go to the local market and get some mackerel pieces and turned them into spicy grilled fish!

Thank the human alarm clocks

Suzani textile from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, by Madina Kasimbaeva. Image description: A spread of a Suzani textile from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Floral motifs adorned the entire spread, made up of the earthy colour combinations (red, brown, green etc.) against a dark navy blue background.

In the previous edition of Courtney Martin’s the examined family, she quoted a line from Sharon Salzberg’s Real Change, which asks:

How many people need to be doing their jobs well in order for you to be able to do your job well?

The idea that we are never sole individuals, that we are social beings first and foremost, and that the achievements and successes we have built are sustained on the actions of other people in close proximity or peripherally around us, is never new, but something that needs to be reminded from time to time. I realised this specifically as I wrote down my acknowledgement section of my thesis as I tried to include the names of everyone who have helped me tremendously throughout my project while trying to keep to the page limit (brevity isn’t my strongest suit). Not only that, however substantial the amount of work comes from my own blood and sweat, much of them was guided by the previous work of the scholars and the learned of the past and the current — this whole standing on the shoulders of giants. This almost always made me emotional and grateful for others who opened the doors for other people. And that is how I would always strive to do too, once the doors are opened for me, I will keep it open for others, particularly those who had to jump through more systemic hoops than any of us less marginalised folks do in order to achieve their lifelong dreams.

I think about this article by Rebecca Solnit and specifically this phrase a lot, particularly after encountering (sometimes, well-meaning, passionate, new) activists who insisted on knowledge gatekeeping — a symptom that sometimes are prevalent among academics too (and also something I must have done in the past, and have reminded myself every time I found myself being judgmental too):

I wanted to yell at some of the people I run into, “If you think you’re woke, it’s because someone woke you up, so thank the human alarm clocks.” It’s easy now to assume that one’s perspectives on race, gender, orientation, and the rest are signs of inherent virtue, but a lot of ideas currently in circulation are gifts that arrived recently, through the labours of others.”

When the cathedrals you buid are invisible, made of perspectives and ideas, you forget you are inside them and the ideas they consist of were, in fact, made, constructed by people who analysed and argued and shifted our assumptions.

Solnit also shared a beautiful passage Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza wrote in the wake of the 2016 election:

This is a moment for all of us to remember who we were when we stepped into the movement — to remember the organisers who were patient with us, who disagreed with us and yet stayed connected, who smiled knowingly when our self-righteousness consumed us. Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you. I remember who I was before I gave my life to the movement. Someone was patient with me. Someone saw that I had something to contribute. Someone stuck with me. Someone did the work to increase my commitment. Someone taught me how to be accountable. Someone opened my eyes to the root causes of the problems we face. Someone pushed me to call forward my vision for the future. Someone trained me to bring other people who are looking for a movement into one.

There is also a fitting Zulu sayingUmuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which basically means ‘a person is a person through other people.’ 

Do you have a list of the human alarm clocks that you wanted to thank?

Reading in my tabs:

  • What we can learn from the world’s largest fully remote company.
  • This position paper by the Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence Working Group is a great resource for folks interested in designing and creating AI from an ethical position that centres Indigenous concerns. Thank you The Engine Room for sharing.
  • The lesson of COVID-19 is that scientific and technical expertise stripped away from humane wisdom — social, moral and political knowledge of what matters, what we value, what needs preserving, repairing and caring for together — is a mere illusion of security. It’s an expensive life raft lacking rations, a compass, a map or a paddle. It cannot carry us safely into the futures we all need to build, for our nations, humankind and for coming generations of life on this planet.”
  • “Hustle culture isn’t the wave anymore. Not by a long shot. Now it’s discernment and shrewd allocation of resources and boundaries galore.” Author Mary H.K Choi on working through a pandemic.
  • I was on Readwise free trial once, and I loved that it sent me daily snippets of what I have highlighted from my Kindle and Instapaper to my inbox — that way it refreshes my mind about what I have read and learned and found interesting. Recently I learned it had added more useful features, such as grabbing clips of podcasts which will be automatically transcribed into texts, and they will be sent to my inbox. Honestly, I have a long list of things to get and do and help when I am financially secure, and I am adding Readwise subscription to one of them.
  • What does it mean to love the life we’ve been given? / To act well the part that’s been cast for us?”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, rereading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and Pablo Neruda’s bilingual version of Los Versos del Capitan in an attempt to learn Spanish.
  • Listening: This Earshot episode about Kylie Webb, who compiled her ‘sonic bucket list’ — a list of “11 sounds that I want to commit to memory” after being told that she has a condition that at some point she will lose her hearing.
  • Watching: Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, which is, uhm, OK. (I have a lot of thoughts actually, but it might require another edition.)
  • Food & Drink: Still under enhanced lockdown, and making anything out of the pantry leftovers — today it is super fiery nasi goreng belacan idc.

Will this enlarge me, or diminish me?

No clever reflections this week — because, busy (!!!) which is a funny state to be in in the midst of the pandemic. I mean I love what I am doing but the concept of needing everyone to work in order to survive, not because we want to? What a perverse concept don’t you think? 

This week I am thinking of this WITI edition that speaks about the pipe organ that miraculously remained intact during the fire at Notra Dame cathedral last year. This year, the work to restore the pipe organ began. The work, which would include dismantling, cleaning, and reassembling in the hands of a team of skilled labour and artisans, would also involve another six extra months to tune the organ. The whole timeline would take about four years, and the organ is expected to play for the first time since the restoration work on April 16, 2024. 

WITI talks further about the trade-off between digital and analogue artisanry in the times of this digital age, but I couldn’t help finding the parallel between the pipe organ and surviving any form of trauma, even if it looked like it, or us, survived the situation intact. The work it takes to heal is not quite linear or as straightforward — even though it, or us, seem fine on the surface (after the dismantling, cleaning, and reassembling) and one does not often talk about the extra work of recalibrating the harmful values we have internalised, or the boundaries we have failed to set (the work of tuning). It might seem I am likening you, or us, who survived the trauma of any kind, to a pipe organ the way religious zealots have likened women to some wrapped lollipops, but I hope it does not transpire as so. But even so, if you, or us, need extra time for tuning, it’s completely OK.

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and translating Pablo Neruda’s Los Versos del Capitan in an attempt to learn Spanish.
  • Listening: This Earshot episode about Kylie Webb, who compiled her ‘sonic bucket list’ — a list of “11 sounds that I want to commit to memory” after being told that she has a condition that at some point she will lose her hearing.
  • Watching: The only Jurassic Park sequel we needed.
  • Food & Drink: My town is under enhanced lockdown right now, which sucks — but it sucks less when a neighbour dropped some bananas in front of our house and we got to make some pisang goreng (banana fritters) today.

Never the great leveller

About last month before the schools and offices were reopened in Malaysia, I set up a video call for my mother as one of her weekly rituals to talk to her grandnieces. Only about 10 minutes in the video call, Aufa, 7 years old, decided to throw tantrum and wailed to her mother, who was perched attentively by her side, that she does not want to “do video” anymore. “Too many video,” she lamented, “video with teacher, video with Ustazah (for her Quran class), video with friends, video with Tok Teh (my mother), no more video!” We ended the call abruptly, abiding by the request of the disgruntled child.

There is no back to normal now, a reality that I have slowly accepted as I no longer number the days of the (semi) lockdown on the top of my journal page on a daily basis. Just like the anxiety-inducing needle during the 2016 US election, it’s an imposed feature I decided to do away with and no longer pay attention to, as it would no longer serve me or my mental health.

At the end of The Plague, Albert Camus writes: “The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely […] it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing […] it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers.” It is here to stay, mutating in many ways that we, somehow as resilient social creatures will find ways to navigate as we always do. Like Camus’s plague however, our unconsciousness stays with us — in a sense, somehow we still use a language that serves the ideology to think that the pandemic is a great leveller that renders us homogenously by going through the same kind of struggle, when it fact it does not.

Consider the Zoom video calls, which is a great example of the blurring the line between the distinction of the digital public and private sphere, not only when it comes to the work hours boundaries (which had been relinquished ages ago when we had Whatsapp, emails and Slack on our phones), but also clearly physical boundaries. When we turn on the video on Zoom calls, we are essentially inviting everyone into our personal space. In the very same setting we can probably see “a menagerie of rooms and homes, some generic or simple, others less so. […] The Zoom background immediately crosses the professional-personal boundary and eliminates any illusion of in-office equality. It’s as if everyone had just said their salaries out loud.” This is, after all, just one of the instances, we have not even talked about the digital divide — globally, only just over half of households (55%) have an internet connection, according to UNESCO. Even in the developed world, 87% are connected compared with 47% in developing nations, and just 19% in the least developed countries. Not to mention, being cooped up within the same four walls of the Zoom frame does not necessarily level the same amount of space one takes up. Someone is bound to hog the conversation and interrupt people all the time. Mansplaining would just find ways to manifest itself despite all platforms.

This week, about 1.2 million consumers in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur were affected by the water disruption caused by the effluent polluting in Selangor River. I saw a tweet going around, “tua muda miskin kaya, masalah air menimpa semua” (young old, rich and poor, the water cuts affect all) and scoffed as the timeline served us posts and pictures of folks booking Airbnbs and hotels out of state for their “MYR200 per night” showers, along with an Instagram post from the wife of the Selangor Chief Minister showing her family swimming in their private swimming pool. In the very same vein, other folks were lining up to fetch water for their homes from the water tankers, carrying pails and buckets of multiple sizes.

Is this a form of disaster capitalism, a term made popular by Naomi Klein to describe how societies, during times of catastrophe, become accustomed to capitalist practices? I don’t know, it could be. And just how capitalistic societies function, for those who cannot compete, fail. What a perverse ethics, that in fact, lacks ethics, in the words of Paulo Freire.

Coronavirus, or any disaster for that matter, is never a leveller. It just exacerbates what you see on a daily basis, if you care to pay enough attention.

Reading in my tabs:

  • 7 intersectional feminist principles for equitable and actionable COVID-19 data.
  • Must read: “When my Beloved died, a doctor told me: The last sense to go is hearing. When someone is dying, they lose sight and smell and taste and touch. They even forget who they are. But in the end, they hear you.” Writer Jesmyn Ward, who wrote Sing Unburied Sing, Men We Reaped, and Salvage the Bones among others, lost her husband to the coronavirus. This is her moving essay on grief, personal and collective.
  • “This work examines how Western tech monopolies, with their desire to dominate, control and influence social, political, and cultural discourse, share common characteristics with traditional colonialism. […] By drawing examples from various parts of the continent, this paper illustrates how the AI invasion of Africa echoes colonial era exploitation.” Abeba Birhane on the algorithmic colonisation of Africa.
  • A group of researchers realised that China’s Baidu blanked out parts of its mapping platform, so they used those locations to find a network of buildings bearing the hallmarks of prisons and internment camps in Xinjiang. Here’s how they did it.
  • “[…] scholar Saidiya Hartman bemoans as “the demand that this suffering be materialised and evidenced by the display of the tortured body or endless recitations of the ghastly and the terrible,” only for very little to change. […] If wider society recognises data’s limitations, it, too, can move on from overly relying upon it as the only proxy for evidence.” While data that demonstrates racism might be useful in clarifying the things we already know to be true, it has limited power in terms of shifting public opinion. Also related: This essay on the ethics and aesthetics of protest videos.
  • “As a product leader, I ask myself: ‘Will users regret using the product I build? Ten years from now, how will we look back on the human impacts of what we create?’ The Ethical Explorer Pack is the perfect set of conversation starters to think through and futureproof the product development process.”
  • I’m nerding hard on this idea of digital gardens. “These creative reimaginings of blogs have quietly taken nerdier corners of the internet by storm. A growing movement of people are tooling with back-end code to create sites that are more collage-like and artsy, in the vein of Myspace and Tumblr—less predictable and formatted than Facebook and Twitter. Digital gardens explore a wide variety of topics and are frequently adjusted and changed to show growth and learning, particularly among people with niche interests.”
  • “These studies provide a reminder that intellectual humility doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and that our relationships can shape how defensive we are about our own knowledge and beliefs. To be more open-minded, it helps to feel loved and respected. Of course, this also works in reverse. If you wish those around you to be more open, consider whether you provide them with the respect and understanding to let down their defences.” How to foster ‘shoshin’, or ‘beginner’s mind’.
  • Oh if I were to have all the time and financial privileges in the world to just learn, I would enroll full-time in this Anthropology + Design course.
  • My new discovery down the Internet rabbit hole: Asknature.org is a free online tool where you can search thousands of nature’s solutions to various challenges.
  • Brace yourselves for the nostalgia: a museum of Winamp skins.
  • Young seeds that have not seen sun, forget and drown easily.”

STATUS BOARD

August 2020

Every day I take a 1-second video using the app 1 Second Everyday to record what’s happening in my life. This is for August 2020, where I had the opportunity to work within some feminist spaces and learned how to work with care and safety, a notion I have always wanted to be involved with and champion!

Mentally I am here

“Everything that you fought for was not for yourself, it was for those who came after you.” — Howard University alumnus Chadwick Boseman provided words of inspiration to the Class of 2018 during Howard University’s 150th Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 12 in Washington, D.C.

If you have survived grief before, you would understand there is no linear way the whole Kubler-Ross stage runs — you would almost experience denial first, with anger, bargaining, and depression filling in the between interchangeably, and when you thought you had reached the end with acceptance in sight, in then waltzes in the retrogress. I would know, for most of the time, I linger way too long in the anger phase, trying to fend off every faux positivity dispensed by sometimes well-meaning, although less informed people to look for the silver lining in my father’s passing. Bleurgh shut up.

Chadwick Boseman’s death, and the revelation of his diagnose of colon cancer over 4 years ago, brought out the lingering anger in many of us, also particularly me. Out sprouted all of these faux positivity, inspiration porn Twitter accounts going, “Chadwick was in 5 movies while battling cancer, what excuse do we have?!” I don’t know man, I am sure Chadwick loved what he was doing, and he probably had more resources than other Black men and women out there trying to fight for their health insurance and rampant racism that are currently structurally killing them, but try to not romanticise how someone had to work through illness and/or a disability? Or do better and try to hire disabled and/or chronically ill people for once, so for once no one should live without fear of losing housing, food, or health insurance? I don’t know, make something easy for some other people who don’t have it easy as you for once?

And Malaysians, it’s not lost on me that while you are currently mourning the death of a Black man — just a few weeks ago your beloved Malay, fair-skinned sweetheart was called out for cultural appropriation after she chose to don a traditional Indian attire for a commercial photoshoot. While she half-heartedly apologised for the ‘oversight’, citing her choice to do so was out of her fondness for the Bollywood culture, the rest of us (I’m saying ‘us’ because as long as this racism is still going on, I am still complicit in it and need to do better) chose to cyberbully the Indian girl who called her out, tossing every single racist, stereotypical language her way, further proving her point that we only love the Malaysian Indian aesthetics where they suit and benefit us, but not the people. I don’t know, like, listen to other people who look different than you are, and are treated differently than you are and not as well are you are, in a country where racial politics is still widespread, for once?

Someone mentioned to me the other day that the year 2020 has been “a ride” so far. I’d like to add that it is like being on a ride on an engulfed roller coaster carriage whilst donning a surgical mask, with leering patriarchy catcalling “hai kak long you’re looking good cium sikit eh sombunk” on the carriage behind you, and murder hornets swarming around your heads on the carriage in front, bringing buzzy news about the largest ice sheet melting in Greenland, all the while having power-hungry politicians ready to push you for your own demise from the carriage, and having the lesser evil of the other side of the politicians ready to catch you from below, only letting you fall to the ground once someone hails them as the hero. Fun.

Mentally, I am currently this paddling forlorn dog.

Reading in my tabs:

  • The size of the Beirut blast compared to other accidental explosions and conventional weapons in this smart data visualisation.
  • Inside the Turkish start-up that wants to be your “personal butler”.
  • “This tool kit and website brings together on emergent best practices, workflows, and tools that communities, educators, mutual aid groups, designers, artists and activists are using right now to host gatherings, and how design needs to change to best suit people, right now.” Responsible design for digital communities.
  • “[W]ithout the hearing aid I can come unstuck, plunging below the surface layer of Toronto into the city that lies beneath — a place full of monstrous shapes and shadowy figures, where clarity is only found in small moments of concentration, as I lean in to listen with my brow furrowed and neck crooked. I didn’t know then that my balancing line between different cities was the same line between a pre- and post-pandemic world, where everyone is forced to join me in a dimension of muted sound.” Ben Berman Ghan is partially deaf, and this is his essay on newly quiet cities.
  • “She also suggested that we may get it wrong when we focus on individuals — on chief executives, on social media activists like her. The probable answer to a media environment that amplifies false reports and hate speech, she believes, is the return of functional governments, along with the birth of a new framework, however imperfect, that will hold the digital platforms responsible for what they host.” How technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci keeps getting big things right. I researched leadership emergence in a leaderless networked movement for my PhD, and Tufekci’s work had been instrumental in guiding my thesis.
  • Practical Data Ethics course, run by fast.ai and USF Data Institute, covering disinformation, bias, ethical foundations, privacy & surveillance, Silicon Valley ecosystem, and algorithmic colonialism.
  • Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein’s Data Feminism is available for free online. I plan to get my own copy once my budget permits.
  • I mean, if you want to get into it — 600 pages on boxes as world-making devices.
  • The Zooms in my life.
  • “Listen to me. There will be a day when the world will need you most — be alive on that day.”

STATUS BOARD

The moon is drifting away from us

Image description: Four panels of comics drawn by illustrator Hasanthika Serensina, from an article in Electric Lit called What It’s Like to Lose Your First Language. The caption above the first two panels wrote: “Scientists say there is a process to how you lose a language. It’s called language attrition.” The first panel contains: A part of a pocket watch visible against a black background, with the caption: “First you lose the word. Then you lose the grammar. Last you lose the sound.” The second panel contains Part of a hand holding the pocket watch visible against a black background, with the caption: “But scientists don’t believe the language is completely lost.” The third panel contains: An old white man in a suit holding the pocket watch against a black background, looking towards the reader, with the caption: A process like hypnosis, for example, might be used to help recall. The fourth panel contains A black background, with two speech bubbles. The first speech bubble is captioned: “Stop!”. The second speech bubble is captioned: “I don’t want my first language back.”

After fostering three stupid kittens (who are still here) who showed in my yard and almost made their way into the car tyres, my home office, my precious space, was almost dismantled completely to let these dumdums roam / zoomie around without causing much damage (‘much’ is an understatement). The wires are coiled and kept away safely, the second monitor shelved in another room, and my favourite swing arm standing lamp (which I call my ‘focus lamp’ as when I switched it on to work on my thesis, the rest of the world in my peripheral view can wait for a few hours) folded away. Precious books I referred to more often than the rest that I kept on a stool next to my desk were also returned to the shelves, no more hierarchy, as it was feared that one, or two, or three of these furry sprightly babies would run into them and lest they’d tumble to the ground and hurt them. For a few months, I worked on my laptop from my dinner table downstairs, occasionally pushing my files and papers away to make space for actual dinner to be served on the very table.

After graduating, I was sickly worried with the neverending job hunt in this pandemic and this recession that got me nowhere. Plus, as the Malaysian economy ‘reopens’, companies which had never been accustomed to WFH were so eager to drop the idea altogether and return to the office, so the remote working option — which is the option I am opting for — is out of the picture for most of them. I am not looking to elaborate more on this absurdity on requiring newly hired employees to uproot their lives and relocate across the country solely for work when the pandemic is still ongoing and the precarity of the economy is still hanging by a flimsy thread, ready to snap at any second. So as the kittens grew up and it seemed much safer to return my home office, my precious space, to its previously welcoming state, was put to a halt.

A month ago, I had been getting a steady requests for paid work, which I am grateful for my wonderful circle of friends. In one of the first few stints I was going to be commissioned for, I spent hours sitting on a stool (for one of the kittens had claimed the chair as his own) typing and transcribing hours of workshop materials. As a result, my back felt like a twig about to snap if I were to move in a slight haste. That weekend I decided this was it — maybe if I return this precious space of mine, this home office, to its state of former glory, some magic will invite itself back in — physically (as in my back will never hurt again) and mentally (*this, obviously, requires more work). So I had to apologise to the Chair Stealer Kitten as I reclaimed my chair, dusted off the work table, placed the monitor in its appropriate angle again, rearranged the stationeries and my favourite books (the hierarchy is back) and decided to forgo working from the dinner table altogether.

*In accepting all of these wonderful jobs I was entrusted with and lined up for me, I am also forced to face head on with my previous workplace trauma and my healing. It helps a lot that one of the work I am doing with deals with the idea of care and safety, a notion somehow I felt disconnected with after so many years. There are these safe and warm voices from all of the talented people who recommended me saying I am totally qualified to do all of these — which of course I am! — but there are also all of these strange, foreign, vicious voices I anticipate to emerge from one of the chat backchannels telling me I will screw this up and they will never expect any less. This is also another topic I do not want to elaborate further, except to let you know I am learning to lean towards the good voices (which are real present people) rather than the past voices, so I am good and there is nothing much to worry about. I am sharing the lesson from Foreign Bodies on trauma (although the edition is on intergenerational trauma):

Don’t believe everything you think! Traumatic events are watershed events in most people’s lives: there is a “before the accident” and “after the accident” so to speak. Because of the nature of how big these events are and their impact on life, it’s normal for your thinking patterns to feel very much unlike yourself. It’s important to recognize: “Hey, this isn’t really me. I need some help to feel and process like myself again.”

And a thought: What if we thought of emotional trauma the way we do physical: as a wide class of wounds whose healing is unpredictable, whose scars take different forms?

Reading in my tabs:

  • How did the Internet get so bad?
  • The virus isn’t simply a health crisis; it is also a design problem.
  • The furor with a grading algorithm for the A-level exam results for thousands of UK students shows why algorithms are never neutral. Also, too many AI researchers think real-world problems are not relevant.
  • Platform data do not provide a direct window into human behaviour. Rather, they are direct records of how we behave under platforms’ influence. So, always ask, what purpose does the measurement initially serve?
  • “[A]ll parts of who we are are present in this work, especially when it’s around racial justice. And so, we should be carving out space for people to just name their limits and also name their vulnerabilities and saying, ‘I can’t right now….and that’s fine.”” On Black activism and burnout, and how the well-being of activists is interrelated with the well-being and sustainability of social movements.
  • “[A]s I am writing this, my lumchum is encased in a bag covered in stripes and musical dinosaurs; I am sheepish but largely unfazed by this. A cursory survey of my friends and family has found that on average, chaochaos tend to stick around well into a person’s thirties, forties, even fifties. You never buy a new one because you want to, but because you are forced to. There is also no telling which pillow will do it for you. Much like love, it just happens.” An ode to the chaochao, or the ‘smelly pillow’, a must-have in every Malaysian household that I remember (including mine).
  • A volunteer-run guide that will help you set up a tablet for an elder isolated by COVID.
  • Can’t afford Masterclass(es)? Here’s masterWiki, “stolen from MasterClass, republished as wikiHow”.
  • Universe is an app that allows anyone to design a web page on their phone, no code needed. Perfect for individuals as well as small businesses, as it can handle the merchandise, manage inventory, shipping, and operations on the back end. There might be limitations, but I am excited to see where this might lead. Thank you WITI for the link.
  • Books with unusual but brilliant structures.
  • So TIL that the moon is drifting away from us and honestly can you ever blame our sis
  • “Come celebrate /with me that everyday/ something has tried to kill me/ and has failed.”

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science. I also just finished Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and honestly, what a ride! I am not always into horror novels, but I am enjoying every bit of Moreno-Garcia’s book — part Lovecraftian, part Alfred Hitchcock, all Gothic setting — very much.
  • Listening: I’m loving this mellow indie number from this South Korean duo called Mukimukimanmansu, recommended by Fiza Pirani of Foreign Bodies. Also, I have no music background whatsoever, but I am enjoying this delightful documentation of transit chimes by chord interval.
  • Watching: My weekend Youtube rabbit hole adventure had lead me to the discovery of Two Minute Papers, a channel featuring short, well, 2-minute videos created by a professor who reviews science-related research papers. Also, sign me up for this kind of work stress!
  • Food & Drink: We made pulut kuning today to send over to the neighbours’ houses as a kenduri (feast) now that I have levelled up as Dr. Zana Fauzi!