Soon, we will be publishing the documents that we received from our first city (Sacramento).
I asked Tracy Rosenberg if she would explain the history and origin of Oakland Privacy, which she had mentioned to me actually started out as the “Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group.” I enjoyed learning that the organization that has been so pivotal in helping put Oakland’s current surveillance policy framework in place had its roots in Occupy Oakland. (We will be talking to Tracy more about that framework, and how it can be used as a model for every city across the country.)
But I had no idea what a relevant slice of history I had unearthed, and it seems like we could all benefit from learning more about it.
This is the first of two interviews with Oakland Privacy’s Tracy Rosenberg. (Second Interview here.)
Lisa Rein: Okay so it’s January 2012. Occupy Oakland is still alive, but waning.
Tracy Rosenberg: Right. So, Occupy Oakland, as you know, had a reputation as one of the more militant occupy encampments. It was one of the later ones. One of the last ones. After about two weeks of occupation in the plaza it was forceably busted by police, with tear gas and multiple injuries. Veteran Scott Olsen had his head basically split open by the police.
LR: With a tear gas grenade, correct?
TR: Yes. There were a bunch of re-occupations and episodes that continued up through January 28, 2012 or so, which was one of the last confrontations between Occupy Oakland and the police happened.
Occupy Oakland’s January 28 event was an attempted occupation of an abandoned building. An abandoned, county-owned building in the City of Oakland. The idea was that spaces that weren’t being used by the government needed to be available as public spaces or common spaces for people who were economically disenfranchised. (Economically disenfranchised = The homeless and people who were just displaced.)
So, the #J28 “occupation” of this government building was militant and controversial. Essentially, it sort of drew a line in the sand for a lot of people. There were people who sort of identified with the general idea of Occupy, but weren’t super duper comfortable with militant activism and the physical occupation of public property that was increasingly appening with Oakland Occupy. And, ultimately, a lot of people walked away after #J28.
Occupy Wall Street starts
September 17, 2011
Occupy Oakland starts
October 10, 2011
Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group starts
July 2, 2013
Oakland Privacy starts
July 15, 2016
LR: I heard that there were a lot of problems with the businesses in that area during Occupy. What was going on there?
TR: Well, there were a lot of business in the downtown area, which, at that time, were struggling somewhat. These last seven years, we have had a lot of gentrification in downtown Oakland, but back then, in 2011, Downtown Oakland was a hard place to have a business. So, there were a lot of small businesses – a lot of “mom and pop” stores – that were just beside themselves.
LR: Wait I’m sorry. I don’t understand. How was the occupation affecting them negatively? I would have thought it would have brought in more business for them, by drawing more people out in mass numbers for so many weeks in a row. (I know in San Francisco, after a protest, all the restaurants are packed.) So why were they “beside themselves?”
TR: They said that their customers were too frightened of the Plaza to come down and patronize their business.
LR: Oh. So, it gave downtown a bad reputation for a bit because people didn’t know what to expect? But that wasn’t really the protesters’ fault was it. Wasn’t it more because people were afraid of possible police confrontations, often unprovoked, in that area?
TR: Yeah, it was a combination of things. Occupy Oakland kind of wrapped itself up with the “Fuck the Police” ethos. Especially towards the end. Many folks who had been involved with it started to think about the fact that they’d seen a lot of police ammunition and equipment driving around the encampments. There seemed to be a lot of federal agencies participating.
These folks weren’t really sure what had been used on them, or how. So they started to do a little bit of research on these issues. What equipment had been used? What police tactics were being used? What were some of these other agencies? People started taking pictures of the federal trucks. “What was all of this?” They wondered. “What exactly were they using against us?”
This is the second of two interviews with Tracy. Here is the first interview, which is about how Oakland Privacy’s roots are based in the “Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group”.
By Lisa Rein.
The Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project is all about developing a larger strategy for determining what police and sheriff departments have already purchased, and putting “surveillance policy frameworks” in place to monitor and regulate the use of that equipment against their residents.
The project first started during Aaron Swartz Day 2017’s Sunday hackathon. Before that event was even over, it was clear that it had been really successful and we were all very pumped and decided to just keep going on our projects, through till next year’s event.
Aaron Swartz filed a lot of FOIA requests, and it made me want to start a project at the hackathon that would continue the tradition. (Note: FOIAs are “Freedom of Information Act Requests – and are Federal. This article discusses “public records requests” at the local, or municipal level.)
Tracy has been teaching me about how powerful the information obtained from public records requests can be, because it is literally the police or sheriff department saying, themselves, “Yup. We have this piece of equipment. Here is our purchase receipt.” (For example.)
However, writing the letters and filing the requests can be time consuming, even with systems like Muckrock, that vastly improve the process. So, our first idea was to automate the process of using Muckrock, so someone could fill out a form that would connect to Muckrock seamlessly. It turned out though, that except for the automation, Muckrock already had everything we needed. So, we decided to use Muckrock, and focus on saving folks time by providing all of the letters ahead of time for every single piece of equipment (including requesting details about how the data from these devices was collected and stored).
Tracy wrote up all the letters ahead of time, turning the job of writing and submitting 18 public records requests into a quick cut and paste job. Together, we filed together 18 public records requests; 9 to the City of Sacramento and 9 to the county of Sacramento, in just under over two hours, but it was our first time. (We will be publishing our results very soon.)
In the meantime, I took a few moments to talk to Tracy about the implications of filing public records requests, and how the information obtained from them eventually led to a first of its kind Privacy Commission and surveillance policy framework, in Oakland, California.
Lisa Rein: First, let’s talk about the kinds of information we can uncover with public records requests
Tracy Rosenberg: We get a pretty clear example of the kinds of things that we can find out using this latest find about license plate readers as an example.
Jamie Curcio is a brilliant artist and cultural theorist or something like that… but even, thankfully, harder to pin down.
In any case, he is one hell of a writer and thinker, mixing together all kinds of favorite MONDOid memes — the ups and downs of post-whatever philosophies, the over-the-edges of avant cultural works, media narratives and quasi-apocalyptic hysterias and — perhaps most charmingly — he is obsessed with David Bowie.
I interviewed Curcio mainly about Narrative Machines and the upcoming Bowie book.
R.U. SIRIUS: Your book Narrative Machines provides a discourse about the distorting effects of a sort of mediated hall of mirrors and decentering of identity. This sort of thing has been active for a very long time, even before the internet made its growth “exponential.” From whence comes the recognition that the contingency of our narratives is more useful to the “right” than the “left”… if true?
Also, there was a ‘90s idea that a sufficiently advanced technology would sort-of blow through the rupturing aspect of it all — that the dissipating structures would eventually cohere as a higher evolutionary order. Is there any use for that sort of hopeful perspective today?
JAMIE CURCIO: Pessimism and realism have a complicated relationship. That’s one of the things I was trying to come to terms with in working on Narrative Machines. So let me say, if being pessimistic is going to shut people down, then I’m not going to say it’s a virtue.
But it’s also hard to really take an account of the problems on the horizon for our civilization, and our collective inability or unwillingness to deal with it, and not recognize how blinding optimism about the “revelatory power of the new” can be. Accelerationists often forget just how dumb the perpetual rush toward the new can be.
People can read that statement in a Right or a Left way — they’ll differ in terms of looking for a solution, or in what “our civilization” means. Everyone seems to think the barbarians are at the gates, whether it’s the Fascists and Russian oligarchs, or the immigrants and cultural Marxists brainwashing the children. It’s clear which I think is more absurd, but in either case, it’s a war of myth. We can joke about memewar, but I think we need to recognize the ways that it isn’t a joke, or at least, the way that it’s a continuation of propagandist methods that are hardly new.
There’s a kind of messianism and eschatology that runs through both the “Right” and “Left,” the idea that a political ideology itself can fix anything. Robert Anton Wilson wrote about this plenty. I think he was ahead of the curve in many ways, for all that it’s worth. And he was adamant about remaining optimistic.
To me, the silver lining is that if the analogy of the effect on culture the printing press had, and now with the internet, then there’s reason to believe the end isn’t nigh in that regard. Things are looking dark, but if we’re talking about bot armies and the Russian use of postmodern methods in their propaganda — all is not lost. It just emphasizes the importance of studying “useless” things like philosophy and art.
On the other hand, the way that unfettered capitalism is likely to consume the planet, or at least its habitability for a great number of species including, ultimately, ourselves… that’s another story. For all we know, that ship has already sailed. The only way out, if there is one, is through. We’re committed to carry the experiments of the past into the future — just look at how the problems and solutions of a century ago continue to get resurrected. Fascism, Communism, Liberalism. The three ideologies that arose from the ashes of WW 1.
I should add, I happen to think compassion should guide our actions toward others as much as we can manage, and much Right wing ideology seems a veneer for various forms of cruelty, and I believe cruelty should be reserved for art. So my sympathies tend to run Left, but that’s different from an ideological commitment.
RUS: You take on the statistical based optimism that seems to be well-loved particularly by neoliberal sorts like Pinker. The idea is that statistics show us that human beings are improving their lot in life and becoming more well-behaved. Can you explicate your view a bit?
JC: I was taken by John Grey’s argument on this subject in The Soul of the Marionette, and so while I didn’t just reproduce it, I would say it helped me put a pre-existing line of thought in order. In short, I investigate the Progressive certainty that everything is improving all the time is very much based both on our selective interpretation of the facts, and our situation in terms of a particular narrative we have constructed about our place in history. There have been undeniable benefits per capita in the past 100 years regarding the marriage of technology and capitalism. Will that read the same in 100 years? I’m not so sure.
RUS: I think underlying the technotopian hope of the late 20th Century was the idea that this mostly white and American eruption at the end of the 20th century could use tech to deliver an awesomely improving world and you could elide the blowback from centuries of colonialism and racism. It’s not an entirely bad idea… to avoid conflict.
JC: It definitely tends to overlook the role of inertia in a culture, or of a true reckoning with the past, why that keeps repeating itself through us. Time may be accumulative but the behavior of complex systems is generally not linear.
RUS: You deal in Narrative Machines with questions of revolution… and how it doesn’t tend to deliver on its hopes. Looking at the Arab Spring, would you say that any movement now just accelerates confusion. There’s no interregnum of hope?
The broader question about revolution usually not improving things… does this leave us with neoliberalism with its economic domination, total surveillance and constant war… or nationalism?
JC: I use the Arab Spring as an example. What struck me about it was how clearly it supports the idea of “revolution” as very literal — going around and around, forever. There is a sense of Frazier’s Golden Bough here, each King deposed by the King who will one day be deposed. Though that’s a bit reductive, it is hard to find examples of revolution going well for “the people” long term. It’s generally good for some people, and not others. To the extent that revolutions are a power play, they just reshuffle the cards. There’s a lot in Marxist thought about getting beyond that problem… which we definitely haven’t see play out in reality. The day of the revolution is one thing, but there’s always the day after. But that doesn’t necessarily mean everything is hopeless — we still affect one another, things do actually change.
The long-term goal of the MarsVR program is to enable you to explore Mars in VR using the same ground breaking VR platform that will be used to train the crew members at the Mars Desert Research Station, an analog simulation of Mars in the Utah desert, organized by the Mars Society. the entire VR environment, including all 3-D models and terrain around the MDRS, will be released under open source licenses to be made available to researchers and the general public.
MarsVR will be a fully immersive VR Experience that allows you to explore a simulated Mars environment. The Mars Society is pioneering the use of virtual reality for pre-mission crew training, as well as expanding Mars advocacy and outreach among the global community. Training and documentation will also be provided in the hopes that a whole ecosystem can be built around the project.
MarsVR is one of the first projects of its kind, but I believe it is the kind of system that everyone will be building in the years to come. A VR-enabled datasharing platform has implications for just about every area of scientific research, and may just “change everything” by accelerating breakthroughs at an exponential rate (due to everything being open-sourced and shared with the public).
Meet James Burk, the IT Director of the Mars Society and the one leading the organization into its first foray of “CrowdExploration“ (an emerging field of collaboration between the first astronauts on Mars and VR experts and enthusiasts back on Earth).
James and his team have a few different phases of the project planned. “Phase 1” will focus on designing training simulations for the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. The simulations that take place there help to provide crucial information and situation preparedness to the participating MDRS crew members, via analog research and testing. These help prepare future astronauts to learn what they can in a simulated environment and make the most of their time on Mars.
The first phase of MarsVR will be focused on the MDRS (Mars Desert Research Station), providing a virtual reality platform for serious research to support the exploration of the “real” Mars in the future. But since it is virtual, we can all come along for the ride.
The Phase 1 goal is to build a complete high-resolution simulation of the entire MDRS habitat, both inside and out. This will ship in October, but there should be a beta finished as early as September 2018.
Glenn Branca and Elliott Sharp philosophize with a hammer. And an anvil. And a stirrup. The two New York composers take Friedrich Nietzche, who subtitled an essay “How One Philosophizes With a Hammer,” a step further. They make music that jangles the bones of the inner ear and bruises the brain.
Branca, 42, is a Promethean presence in new music. Emerging from Manhattan’s no wave scene in the late seventies, he smashed the world to flinders with a single, craggy, monolithic chord-a cluster of E notes, to be exact, the thunderclap that opens 1979’s “The Spectacular Commodity” (The Ascension, 99 Records). Then, he made it new. Scored for massed electric guitars amplified past the threshold of aural pain, “Symphony No. 1: Tonal Plexus” (ROIR) welded the harmonics and heterodyning effects of minimalism’s “acoustic phenomena” school to Beethoven’s stormy bluster, Steve Reich’s static harmonies, and the careening, locomotive fury of heavy metal.
“Symphony No. 3: Gloria-Music For the First 127 Intervals of the Harmonic Series” (Neutral) called for non-tempered tunings based on the harmonic series, the naturally-occurring, endlessly-ascending row of pitches which are multiples of a fundamental frequency. “Within this internal mechanism exists a body of music,” Branca observed in his program notes, “music which has not been written, but which is inherently indicated, in much the same way that DNA contains information.” In “Symphony No. 5: Describing Planes of an Expanding Hypersphere” and subsequent works, Branca used the harmonic series to conjure otherworldly effects-an ethereal, crystalline whistling reminiscent of glass harmonica, sonic Spirograph patterns traced in the air by spiraling melody lines.
In his seventh and most recent symphony, Branca embraces equal temperament and conventional orchestral instrumentation. Polymetric, polymorphous, and perverse- there are no melodic themes to speak of, only ascending harmonies “Symphony No. 7“ suggests Reich’s “Desert Music” in its chattering mallet instruments and attacca movement, Anton Bruckner in its almost palpable air of mystery, of awe in the presence of something that withers words like dry husks.
Although he is not the Brucknerian mystic Branca is, Elliott Sharp shares his fellow composer’s obsession with raw power. In music of unutterable strangeness and mutant beauty, the 40-year-old composer/multi-instrumentalist summons visions of thermonuclear fireballs and self-squared dragons, black holes and information whiteout. On Sili/contemp/tation (Ear-Rational), Monster Curve (SST), and other Sharp releases, one hears echoes of innumerable influences-gutbucket blues, Inuit throat-singing, Jimi Hendrix, Krzysztof Penderecki, the harmonic chanting of Tibetan monks, chaos theory, and fractal geometry-scrunched into a single skull and subjected to explosive decompression.
All of which might suggest that Sharp’s art is a cross between the neural spin art of a theoretical physicist at mid-orgasm and the climax of the movie Altered States, where the protagonist devolves into Silly Putty. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sharp, like Branca, is a hyperintellectual who frequently makes use of mathematical equations in his work. He has explored the farflung reaches of the harmonic series and has written works in just intonation, the microtonal tuning system favored by Harry Partch. Moreover, his compositional architecture, tuning systems, and rhythms are often generated using the Fibonacci series, mathematical ratios derived by summing a number and its precedent- 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so forth.
“The music,” informs Sharp in his liner notes to Larynx (SST), “dances upon the ever-changing boundary between a geometry derived from the Fibonacci series and a fractal geometry of turbulence, chaos and disorder.”
Astonishingly, the two composers had never met, a fact that defies the laws of probability given their parallel courses and the close confines of New York’s downtown music scene. Fortuitously, both will have new recordings in the racks. One of Branca’s older works, “Symphony No. 2,” is being released by the Chicago-based indie, Atavistic. Subtitled “The Peak of the Sacred,” it relies on homebuilt “staircase guitars”-lap steel/hammer dulcimer hybrids arranged in tiers, their open strings played with chop sticks-to produce an eerie, lambent rainbow of sound, the aural equivalent of Northern Lights. The second half of “Symphony No. 2” spotlights Z’ev, a Mad Max Roach of sorts who plays springs, pipes, titanium sheets, and strips of cold-rolled steel.
Sharp’s September offerings consist of Datacide and Twistmap (Enemy/Indie and Ear- Rational, respectively, the latter available from Ear-Relevant, 547 W. 20th Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10011). Datacide, which showcases the guitarist’s quartet, Carbon, is forty-nine minutes of neurocore-clotted, convulsive songs that are equal parts dark matter and gray matter. Twistmap features the title track and “Shapeshifters,” two astringent pieces for strings interpreted by the Soldier String Quartet, and “Ferrous,” a rambunctious instrumental performed by Carbon on instruments designed and built by Sharp. Among them are the pantar, an electric string instrument whose angry buzz Sharp describes as “a cross between a tamboura and a dumpster,” and the slab, an unlovely creation fashioned from a hunk of butcher block fitted with bass strings and pickups. Drummed with metal rods, the slab produces a raspy bumbling suggestive of iron bees with rusty wings.
Branca and Sharp share an abiding interest in science fiction. Branca, an obsessive cyberphile, ran JAA Press, a mail-order distributor of cyberpunk books and related ephemera. Sharp’s song and record titles chronicle a lifelong fixation: “Kipple” and “PKD” allude to Philip K. Dick, “Cenobite” to Clive Barker’s splatterpunk movie, Hellraiser, and Dr. Adder to the Jeter novel of the same name.
Little remained but for MONDO 2000 to introduce the two like-minded composers. A meeting was arranged in upstate New York, where both were summering, far from New York City’s sopping, sweltering canyons of steel. Branca graciously conceded to play host at the 200-year-old cottage on the campus of Bard College, at Annandale-on-Hudson, where the experiment in superconductivity was conducted.
I would like to — beforehand — renounce these unauthorized thoughts by… wait, who is it? … oh yeah, me. It is unthinkable to think unthinkable things in times such as these.
1: The Chaos Candidate/President
Upset the apple cart and see what rolls out? Jefferson Airplane sang in their 1969 anthemic song “We Should Be Together” “We are forces of chaos and anarchy… and we are very proud of ourselves.” The Sex Pistols offered the slogan “cash for chaos” and Chaos was a signifier on thousands of punkers tees and leather jackets. Well, we may have learned something about the limits of chaos as applied to practical matters such as political policy and many who loved chaos now curse the Chaos Presidency without looking back… but also, seemingly, without self-reflection.
Trump says whatever the fuck he pleases (well, maybe a bit cautious not to upset Vlad) and seems to enjoy performing provocatively. There’s an inkling of the prankster/trickster spirit. (If you’ve explored the legends of the trickster, you know it is not always or ultimately benign). Sure, he is just a dumpy old scammer, but there’s a bit of the mad glint in the eye when he’s gaslighting the entire world.
It’s problematic of course because it’s bullshit pretending to be facts in a situation that’s consequential but 20th Century countercultures embraced spontaneity and play and Trump’s randomness was appealing to a few old freaks. At a time when parents have been arrested for letting their kids walk down the street and in which “free range kids” has to be enunciated; a time of Tiger Moms and 12 rules for living… and in which “you better watch what you say” has gone from something we freaked out about when Ari Fleischer uttered it during the G.W. Bush years to something that is daily and retroactively enforced by public shaming and worse, the performance of spontaneity is a quality that can attract people and give a dopamine hit of pleasure.
Trump was also up against an uncomfortably constrained, poll-tested, cautious candidate. In contrast to Obama, who could be pretty natural and a bit spontaneous because of natural charisma and because moderation-with-some-progressive-ideals is who he actually is, Ms. Clinton was not just an uncomfortable campaigner. As someone with a managerial temperament, she’d learned and seen too much to not have conservative as well as progressive approaches towards various issues which made her feel conflicted in the role of simple advocacy. In other words, as a true believer, broadly, in the system, she had, from experience, evolved into a full-on neoliberal centrist establishment policy wonk. And she was not having much fun.
Democratic presidential candidates will likely have even more difficulty being spontaneous in 2020 as even the slightest verbal misstep may become a massive trigger.
3: Conspiracy Theory
Many counterculture types are deep — too deep — into conspiracy theory. The President is too deep into conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theory is anti-establishment (unless it’s Colin Powell waving a vial of anthrax at the UN to prove something false about Saddam Hussein or … the Russians!). Therefore, such logic dictates, the president is antiestablishment… which he sort of is in a perverse way. He’s against obeying the established norms, but entirely in his own self-interest and in the interest of peculiar notions that 1: aren’t really against the system (well-policed state capitalism) and 2: don’t hold water.
With the recent FDA decision granting a Breakthrough Therapy Designation to MDMA (i.e. Ecstasy) for PTSD, it seems like a fine time to revisit the first ecstasy experience from the unpublished, incomplete MONDO 2000 story (a different sort of MONDO 2000 book is in the works)
While I am thrilled with the continued movement of MDMA and other psychedelics towards social and political acceptance as therapeutic tools, the fact that this is mainly aimed at bringing soldiers to an inward acceptance of the hurt they gathered… and in some case, inflicted… in one of America’s perpetual overseas adventures raises some deep political questions. Not that I would deny our “wounded warriors” relief. They are not to blame for the poor choices of our political leaders. But it does raise the question whether — in a broader philosophical and political sense — we want the burden of going to war to be lightened and to what degree.
It also implies the potential for a drug that makes us calmly transcendent and all self-forgiving even in the act of war. This is, indeed, one of the conditions the military is looking to create for its supersoldiers.
Anyway, here are some excerpts about MDMA from the MONDO 2000 story…
The following entry is from the early part of the MONDO 2000 story, when “Somerset Mau Mau” and I were distributing the first newsprint edition of High Frontiers, the magazine that became MONDO.
From: “Chapter Six: Funky Punk Acid Rag”
A few weeks after publication, Bruce Eisner said that we really needed to hustle down to his and Peter’s hometown of Santa Cruz because there weren’t any copies available in the stores and people had already grabbed the few we had sent them for free. Also, it would be good to meet the folks in the Santa Cruz psychedelic community. We were invited to stay at Peter Stafford’s apartment.
We arrived at Peter’s place, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Entering a spacious two-room apartment with high ceilings and sunlight streaming in through huge picture windows, Eisner greeted us in the living room. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, there seemed to be a mild hubbub going on. We stood making small talk with Bruce as the door to this other room — it soon became clear it was a bedroom — would quickly open and close. Eventually the door opened and we could see a bunch of guys in a sort of ill-formed circle around the very tall Peter Stafford, so that we could just see his naked chest, goofy grinning laughing face and wildly flailing arms. Everybody seemed to be arguing with Peter. Bruce sighed. “Peter likes to get naked when he’s high,” he said. We assured Bruce that we had no problems with anybody greeting us naked. Eventually, Stafford apparently compromised with his friends and came out to great us wearing a pair of white undies. We immediately fell into a rapture with Peter, as he excitedly ran us through a full course in his personal psychedelic history; tossing books he’d written or that he was mentioned in at us and waxing mega-enthusiastic — as I recall — about squeezing mescaline from a cactus among many other trippy matters.
Bruce Eisner: You might say Peter (Stafford) was the prototypical hippie. He probably was the first hippie, in my estimation, because I remember him growing long hair when he was living in Greenwich Village in 1963, 64. And he hitchhiked to Mexico with really long hair, and he was very boyish and good-looking in those days. I think he was one of the first people to really inspire the hippie movement. He actually used to publish these tabloids, in the Village. He published these special ones that looked kind of like The Oracle, but they were “Stafford Specials.”
And then the party began. As I recall, it was just drink and powerful weed. So the next few days were a blur of way-stoned, half-drunk but absolutely lucid lessons in drug history and psychopharmacology as preached by Peter, interrupted by brief forays around Santa Cruz to meet the local heads. Most impressive were two older women, probably in their ’60s or ’70s. Nina Graboi lived in a neatly furnished modest but brightly colored apartment with huichol peyote paintings on the wall. She had been the New York Director for the League of Spiritual Discovery (LSD), Timothy Leary’s earliest attempt at organizing to educate psychedelic explorers and defend their rights to trip. She had also worked with the legendary LSD psychotherapist Stan Grof. Mau Mau and I felt ourselves in the presence of deep psychedelic history.
The other elder was Liz Gips — a funky gal in baggy blue jeans who seemed to have the hint of a southern accent. I remember being very impressed with her intellect as she laid out the Santa Cruz psychoactive scene and told us about the radio show she hosted on a local public radio station. She invited us to come on her show to talk about High Frontiers a couple of days hence.
The last day of our planned visit arrived and I woke up irritated that we’d stayed so loaded that we hadn’t done what we planned to do. — go to the local bookstores and get them to take magazine. Mau Mau’s heavy drinking and lack of discipline weighed on me. People who wanted to just stay high were clearly too irresponsible to stay on mission… even when the mission was pretty simple. As everybody in the house came to consciousness, I pressed my case for getting out right away and getting to Santa Cruz bookstores with copies of the magazine. My plan was hazily agreed to, but bowls of weed were smoked and lazy conversations sputtered along until the morning was completely gone. I finally got openly pissed and Mau Mau and I got ready to haul ass out the door to distribute the ‘zines. Just as we were walking to the door, this absolutely perfect young blonde haired surfer-looking dude with blazing blue eyes and a blinding shiny white toothed grin walked in. “Does anybody want some MDMA?”
Here’s a partial transcript to shed some light on the situation.
The panel discussed the issue of valid data and how companies have become more concerned with whether they can sell an algorithm-driven software product, and less concerned with whether the damned thing works and who its results might affect, should they be inaccurate.
Lisa Rein: Okay first question: Are the software companies who are making these algorithm-based products are just selling them to whomever they can, for whatever they can apply them to? And if so, how can we stop this from happening?
These companies are powerful and getting larger and more powerful all the time. Yet, no one seems to care; even the companies buying the snake oil products; as long as they can resell the services somehow, and the money keeps coming in. What can we do?
Chelsea Manning: Me personally, I think that we in technology have a responsibility to make our own decisions in the workplace – wherever that might be. And to communicate with each other, share notes, talk to each other, and really think – take a moment – and think about what you are doing. What are you doing? Are you helping? Are you harming things? Is it worth it? Is this really what you want to be doing? Are deadlines being prioritized over – good results? Should we do something? I certainly made a decision in my own life to do something. It’s going to be different for every person. But you really need to make your own decision as to what to do, and you don’t have to act individually. We can work as a community. We can work as a collective entity. People in technology, we’re not going to be able to explain to people – all this stuff. People know that everything’s messed up, and they know that things are messed up because of the algorithms that we have. We’ve educated them on that. They understand that. They understand that viscerally, because they see the consequences and the results of these things that are happening every day.
The problem is that people in technology aren’t paying attention, and even some of us who are paying attention, aren’t doing anything about it. We’re waiting for somebody to do something about it. Somebody else isn’t going to do it. We’re going to have to do it ourselves.
Caroline Sinders: Even if you feel like a cog in the machine, as a technologist, you aren’t. There are a lot of people like you trying to protest the systems you’re in. Especially in the past year, we’ve heard rumors of widespread groups and meetings of people inside of Facebook, inside of Google, really talking about the ramifications of the U.S. Presidential election, of questioning, “how did this happen inside these platforms?” – of wanting there even to be accountability inside of their own companies. I think it’s really important for us to think about that for a second. That that’s happening right now. That people are starting to organize. That they are starting to ask questions.
I think especially looking at where we are right now in San Francisco – inside the hub of Silicon Valley – in a space where it’s very amenable to protest is very amiable to supporting ethical technology. How do we build more support for other people. Is it going to spaces we’re not usually in? Is it going to other tech meet ups? Maybe. Is it having hard conversations with other technologists? Probably. How do we push the politics of our community into the wider spread community? We have to go and actually evangelize that I think.
Is the company even using the algorithm in the way it was intended to be used? Often a company purchases an algorithm that is made for one kind of analytics and it gets used for a completely different thing, and then you get these really skewed results.
Lisa Rein: Wait a minute. I can’t believe I’m asking this, but, are you saying that, as long as they like the results, nobody cares if the results are accurate?
Caroline Sinders: ‘How sure are we that it’s true?’ is not the question that I’m hearing in the conference room. It’s more like ‘we’ve gotten these results and these people have purchased it.’ or ‘It’s selling really well.’ Cause we are in the age of people building software as a product, capabilities as a product, APIs as a product. (Meaning that you buy access to an API that’s like a pipeline.) And if it’s returning certain results that a company can then use and put in a portfolio to sell to other different kinds of clients, like, it doesn’t actually matter how much it works, if it has the appearance of working; if it’s pumping out ‘results.’ So, I can’t speak to like academic verifiability of different kinds of APIs. I can speak to “that I have not ever heard people really talk about that.
Chelsea Manning: Yeah. I’ve had experience with this in particular… For verifiability of data, it’s purely academic. That’s what I’ve found. When you are working in a corporate or a business setting or whether your are working in a government setting – military context or whatever – it’s ‘results, results, results.’ Nobody cares how verifiable the data is. Everybody’s cutting corners. Everybody’s trying to meet deadlines. That’s why we — people in technology – we need to be thinking more ethically. We need to be very cognizant of the systems that we’re building, and not just sitting there, continually meeting deadline and meeting priorities that our set by our leadership, or by clients or by senior corporate, ya know, C Suite people.
You really need to think about what you’re doing. What the consequences of what you’re doing are. Because these (questions) are not happening, and they should be happening. In many cases, for some of these systems, maybe the question of whether we should be doing a system like this at all is a question that should be asked – at least asked, in some of these rooms. It’s not, and it’s not going to be.
Caroline Sinders: I think there is a big push though, if you work in industry software, to really understand the ethical ramifications of the products your using, or the software that you’re using, and how it effects your users. And how this effects even unintended bystanders – people that have not opted in to the system, or into the product, right? And that’s where you get into like, different surveillance systems, or systems that are in the whole vein of the Internet of Things, right? How many people are “accidentally” a part of a data set that they didn’t get to opt in to.
Kristen Lum: And in some cases, remember, you yourself can act as a sponge for accountability. Because now, let’s say you have a system that’s been purchased, that’s been created by “peer reviewed science” or very expensive technology, and it’s saying to do the thing that your organization kinds of wants to do anyway. Well, maybe do some research and show the people your working with, and say “hey we may be over policing this community.” Because, otherwise, it’s like “Hey, this software we spent all this money on is telling us to do it,” which gives them justification to do what they want to do anyway. So, try to maybe act like a buffer, between these viewpoints, by being able to ask, and question, ‘why are you doing that?’
Lisa Rein: Would opening up the “black box” solve everything?
Chelsea Manning: It’s not just that it’s a black box, even when the code is available to you, sometimes how it’s actually coming up with the predictions it’s coming up with — apart from doing pure math, when you’re trying to come up with something that’s understood by humans for an explanation, it can escape you sometimes. So I think that’s one of the dangers of depending on showing the entire algorithm. We have to fully understand these algorithms and not just see how they work from a code perspective or an algorithmic perspective.
What scares me with that is some of these algorithms being used in like, Bail hearings… You literally changing this person’s life, because they are going to stay in jail, because they are in a bail hearing, where an algorithm — made by some company — decided that you’re more predicted to be arrested. It’s not evidentiary in any way, but it’s being used in an evidentiary manner. It’s just a mathematical prediction based on false data — or poor data — and it’s actually tearing people’s lives apart. And it’s also feeding into this feedback loop, because they’re seen as being re-arrestable. Therefore, it reinforces the data set.
Kristen Lum: There are a lot of models now predicting whether an individual will be re-arrested in the future. Here’s a question: What counts as a “re-arrest?” Say someone fails to appear for court and a bench warrant is issued, and then they are arrested. Should that count? So I don’t see a whole lot of conversation about this data munging.
Caroline Sinders: Specifically, I think some of the investigative reporting that Pro Publica has done specifically on this is really worth highlighting.
(Editor’s Note: Parts of this partial transcript were rearranged slightly for flow and readability.)
I should’ve been a guru
Young girls for the pickings
Followers wash my asshole
And grown men weep at my face
I think I could’ve made a go
Smile always and act like I know
The perfect secrets of the cosmic wow
But it’s too late to be a guru now
I should’ve been a guru
Talk shows with Larry King
White robes in a limousine
A long beard and a big ring
I know I could’ve been at peace
A happy face and perfect teeth
Free eats off the sacred cow
But it’s too late to be a guru now
I should’ve been a guru
Sitting still up on a hill
No stress no mess
No sins to confess
No action no friction
Never watched Pulp Fiction
Just laugh while the people bow
But it’s too late to be a guru now
Offer her a lollipop
Offer her some gum
Offer her most anything
Don’t offer her my gun
Offer her de Beauvoir
Or offer her de Sade
Keep your knees together
Have some faith in god
If you’ll be my Valerie Solanas
I will be your Robespierre
Nothing can come between us
‘cept that thing underneath your hair
We have so much in common
Let’s go off on a tear
Bring it down Kill the clowns
Such a lovely pair
Offer her a role in porn
Offer her revolt
Offer her most anything
Offer her your scorn
Offer her some Tribe8
Offer her Genet
Keep your shit together
Fall to your knees and pray
If you’ll be my Valerie Solanas
I will be your Robespierre
Nothing can come between us
‘Cept that thing underneath your hair
We have so much in common
Let’s go off on a tear
Bring it down Kill the clowns
Such a lovely pair
lyrics from original 1982 version, some not used in this version
He is the air controller
You are the air
The people are proud of their father
He’s got a neutron charge card
He’s a mighty tough customer
He’s the glorious defender of the homeland
He just might play tough with ya
President Mussolini makes the planes run on time
Oh dig it little Arabella
He’s a strong man
Keep ‘em flyin’
Newspapers scream “He’s a winner.”
Nobody’s sayin’ what’s being won
Actor image – no content
What exactly is being done?
Send a little aid down south just to
Kill a few San Salvador nuns
Down in South Africa on civilized business
Trying to get gold for guns
Couldn’t be easier to know just what to do
If you were holding out all the money
Just a-looking for an easy going mechanic of depression
And then to wind up with your teeth against the wire fence
Wind up in the smallest of worlds crotch to the angriest lips
One deadly little spasm in the B.F. Skinner cancerteria
One deadly little spasm and what did this money buy?
Keep ‘em flying
Recorded by R.U. Sirius & Party Dogs, remix by Phriendz
Vocals by R.U. Sirius
Image by Chad Essley
Music by Matt Sabo/Party Dogs, Remix by Tommy McKaughan/Phriendz