In This Episode
Deray, Brittany, Clint, and Sam discuss how Facebook bought a police force, cell phones driving the fall of crime rates in the 90s, the destruction of Central Park communities, and Historically Black Colleges. DeRay talks to Ramesh Srinivasan about his new book Beyond The Valley and the intersection between technology and political bias.
VICE: How Facebook Bought a Police Force
The New York Times: Their Land Became Part Of Central Park. They’re Coming Back As A Monument.
The New York Times: HBCUs’ Sink-or-Swim Moment
The Atlantic: The Collapsing Crime Rates of the ’90s Might Have Been Driven by Cellphones
[00:00:00] DERAY: Before we get started, I wanted to recommend a new podcast for you from Limonada media. It’s called Last Day, and it zooms in on the last day of a life as a result of an overdose to help us understand the opioid crisis better. Host Stephanie Wittles, who’s been on this show talking with us about the opioid crisis, the loss of her brother, comedian Harris Wittles, to an overdose. She’s joined by experts, celebrities like Sarah Silverman and first responders, to help us get a better understanding of the overall issue. It’s one of those shows that you just can’t put down like a good book. Check it out wherever you get your podcasts.
Hey, this is Deray. Welcome back to Pod Save The People on this episode. We have the news with me, Brittany, Clint and Sam, and then I’m joined by Ramesh Srinivasan to discuss the intersection between technology, politics, and belief.
RAMESH: Working people, communities of color, indigenous people. In some cases, women are all under threat because technologies tend to reinforce biases and voices and values of the powerful, despite perhaps good intentions from some of their, you know, executives or engineers.
[00:01:00] DERAY: Before we jump in my message today is don’t confuse all the other things with freedom. I think that in this moment there are a lot of people who have materially benefited from some of the Trump stuff, there are people who materially benefited from incarceration or even the end of incarceration that’s happened, right? There are people who have materially benefited from minor things that don’t really change the system and don’t really go far enough.
But, they do enough to help you out just a little bit with like a new contract or I don’t know, a new speaking gig and just never confuse comfort with freedom. That comfort allows you at the individual level to experience some modicum of a little less pain and a little less trauma, but freedom is when those things are gone all together and not just respite.
And we want to make sure that in this hurt, they were always fighting for freedom and freedom is necessarily about community. Comfort can be about the individual. That’s just been on my heart. Let’s go.
BRITTANY: Hey [00:02:00] y’all, it’s the news. This is Brittany Packnett Cunningham, @MsPackyetti on all social media.
SAM: And this is Sam Sinyangwe @samswey on Twitter.
CLINT: This is Clint Smith @clintsmithIII.
DERAY: Ay ay ay, and this is Deray, @deray on Twitter.
CLINT: Brittany Packnett Cunningham, BPC.
BRITTANY: BPCs all three names, please and forever. Um, okay. So y’all. There was a picture that came out this week that spoke more words than all the languages combined, and it was a picture on the floor of a congressional hearing room, with the face of none other than auntie Maxine Waters.
And she’s given that face that like tells you that you’re in trouble. But you, you know, maybe going into a store and you can’t buy nothing in there, or maybe you say what your friends were going to do when she had to tell you she’s not one of your little friends and the person whose little friend she is, not that she’s facing in this picture, is [00:03:00] none other than Mark Zuckerberg.
After, what many would call and I would call a disastrous hearing about Facebook on the Hill this past week. It was fascinating to watch him wiggle out of a lot of questions, particularly around Russia and civil rights at Facebook. Yeah. I don’t know if you all saw that picture, but the whole hearing was fascinating.
SAM: Yeah, this was a huge contrast from the previous hearing that I saw. I don’t know if this was his last hearing because he’s seems like he’s being called to task more than once, and he definitely deserves it. But the last hearing, it was a lot of, I believe this was senators who didn’t really know what kind of questions they should be asking, didn’t really understand the platform, didn’t understand how Facebook worked, but this most recent hearing in the House it seemed like they did their research. You know, you could tell that they did their research. They were asking the right questions. You had AOC who deeply understood how this all worked, asking questions of Zuckerberg that he just simply could not answer in any coherent [00:04:00] way.
You know, he was asked at one point, where does he draw the line with regard to what content is considered acceptable on Facebook and what content is not? Who’s a credible news source is the Daily Caller or organizations like Breitbart considered to be trusted sources and he sort of didn’t have an answer for that. Then right after the hearing-
BRITTANY: No, he did have an answer Sam, his answer was, “well, I don’t think lying is good.”
SAM: Right, right. And then right after that, we find out that Breitbart is a trusted source on their new media platform on Facebook. So, so he really didn’t really have a good answer for that for sure.
And then, you know, there were just these moments where I think particularly for AOC, like tripped up Zuckerberg in such an obvious way, he just sort of stared at the camera and his eyes were saying, “help me.” But it, you know, it was a great hearing to see him have to respond to these things. It was powerful to have folks who are of our generation being able to question him.
You know? I think that that was a moment that, that I hadn’t seen before, [00:05:00] was Mark Zuckerberg being held accountable by folks who, you know, in many cases, grew up and started using Facebook where some of the early adopters of Facebook, understood the system and how it works and how it’s been corrupted and, and what types of questions to ask.
Ask them questions about Cambridge Analytica, which he really didn’t good answers for either about when he found out about Cambridge Analytica, he had to correct himself about when he found out about Cambridge Analytica. So, you know, I think this is the beginning, not the end. I’m hopeful that this will spark even further questions in the media and hopefully more required congressional testimony.
CLINT: Yeah, it was. It was illuminating. Um, I think that on multiple occasions he was caught in the ethical inconsistency to put it mildly, that Facebook engages in and the sort of what they present as a sort of openness to both sides that is actually, was sort of both sides ism that creates a set of false equivalencies.
And just generally, and this is what lots of folks have said, a failure to reckon with the fact that they are [00:06:00] not simply a publisher that can allow people to put up content that they are not willing to fact check. And I thought AOC’s point about like a, you’re not going to fact check Trump when he puts up ads that are lying.
So can I put up an ad that says all of the Republicans are supporting the Green New Deal? Or what happens if a politician puts up ads and targets them specifically to black communities that say that voting is happening on a different day than the actual voting is. So, and he didn’t have an answer for that.
And I thought it revealed a lot of the holes in the way that Facebook is approaching this moment. And it felt good for a lot of us to see that because I think we use the things that we’ve been saying for a long time, but it also was very serious. And it’s also deeply concerning because there are people who are going to try to use Facebook to suppress the vote to swing this election.
And I think 2016 was just a small, small taste of what we are going to see over the course of the next year. And it should be something that they take much more seriously. And it is unfortunate that they don’t seem [00:07:00] to be doing so.
DERAY: I’m reminded that Facebook is the largest media company in the world, definitely the largest media company in the country, and what that means hurts responsibility in the same way that we viewers are like, there should be standards for what’s on the TV for those media platforms.
There are standards for what is on the radio. Now you have a new form of media that literally they have a 2 billion users of Facebook over 1.5 billion daily users of Facebook that. At a point there will have to be these conversations about what is right and what is wrong. And they have always maintained this position of like, you know, they don’t want to be in the position of deciding what’s right and wrong, which is why they play this sort of both sides of them, of having Breitbart.
And frankly, they are afraid of the Trump administration sanctioning them. And there’s a part of that that I understand though, I disagree with it because you think about, I don’t know if you saw that the DOJ just gave a $10 billion contract to Microsoft over Amazon, and granted they should be giving that money out anyway cause it’s probably for some [00:08:00] facial recognition or to develop some technology to just criminalize people, but it is believed that the reason Amazon didn’t get it is because Trump just doesn’t like Jeff Bezos, and it’s like to see the government just move at the will of Trump’s latest emotion, I think has made a lot of people afraid.
And I do think that Facebook is using that a little bit to just say that like, you know what, lying is okay, and, and Zuckerberg’s, response was to AOC before she pressed him. Where’s that? Like, he just trusts the people to know the difference between a lie and the truth. And it’s like, well, we don’t actually take that sort of twisted logic to any other form of media.
We don’t take that to ads on TV. We don’t take that with ads about like medicine. You can’t just like lie about medicine or you can lie about food. And I think that that is important here, but it is the biggest media company in the world and when I think about it on those terms, it is clear that there should be some rules and regulations.
Those rules won’t come though when all of Congress is 80 years old and just started using the computer 10 days ago. So we do have to make sure that we have some people who understand the platforms [00:09:00] natively and have used them to be a part of the process.
BRITTANY: And now the news.
SAM: So my news is also about Facebook, and this was something I didn’t know.
Facebook apparently owns a part of the Menlo park police department. So over the past several years, as Facebook has expanded in Silicon Valley. Building this massive campus where thousands and thousands of workers are working every single day. They have begun to start funding a Facebook unit of the Menlo park police department that is specifically responsible for responding to calls for service and patrolling the Facebook campus because that’s who funds them.
And this is fascinating because we’ve talked about the privatization of prisons. We’ve talked about the privatization of police policy-making, how there’s one company called Lexipol that writes the use of force standards for 95% of California’s police departments. [00:10:00] This is taking this to an even more extreme level because this is essentially Facebook buying part of a police force.
And using that money to direct the police, uh, to essentially over police, black and brown people who are anywhere near the Facebook campus. So what’s interesting about this, this just broke on VICE, and the reporters were able to obtain a treasure trove of documents that really trace the communications between Facebook and the city of Menlo park and how they have given Menlo park millions and millions of dollars of funding, which they say just goes to the city’s general fund and is to support public safety in general.
But, what they’re able to trace through these communications is that this money is actually very specifically supposed to be used to hire Menlo park police officers is a public police department to hire them to essentially become Facebook’s own police force. I’m so wanting to bring it to the conversation. This is just another [00:11:00] level of privatization in the broader policing conversation, and it intersects with issues of extreme inequality where huge corporations, moneyed interests, are now having the resources to essentially just directly by the police to do their bidding.
BRITTANY: I found this fascinating, and the first thing that I thought of was actually being in college and being in college in a place that had its own police department. So when I was at Washington University in St. Louis, WU PD, as they were known, had all of the power that a regional police department would have, or a municipal police department would have.
They could pull you over, they could write tickets, they could arrest people, they could bring charges, et cetera. And what that meant for a lot of my black friends at a predominantly white university is that when they endured harassment from WU PD, there were very few recourses that they had because there’s no mayor of a college.
There’s a chancellor. Certainly there was an ombudsperson, but often not only did these officers not do what people needed them to do in the face of harassment and discrimination, it was also [00:12:00] additionally scary for college students, many of whom were on scholarship to go and approach their universities governance to complain about the harassment that they received on behalf of the university’s own police department. And so this actually has me A. thinking about colleges and universities and how, as I would say, semi-private at the very least police departments, they’re conducting themselves in light of things like this because it is indeed scary.
The idea that a public service could be privatized like this. We have a hard enough time ensuring the police reach a community standard and are held accountable when they derive their power from the public and the tax dollars that we pay to pay their salaries. So what happens when the police have absolutely no interest and upholding a public standard because its power is coming from a private company and a private company, as we said, that already has deeply questionable values and practices.
The fact that Mark Zuckerberg could not answer representative Joyce Beatty’s. Civil rights questions and answered essentially by throwing the ball to someone else who doesn’t [00:13:00] have a strong record on civil rights either, um, is indeed scary for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is the article that you brought forth, Sam.
DERAY: Well, this made me think about, in addition to all the things that have already been said, is I didn’t know that LAPD has a volunteer police force. They currently have about 400 volunteers across the city, but the chief of police, just a month ago said that he wants to go up to 5,000 people. Who can serve at least eight hours a month, and what the volunteers do is that they go undercover, they sit in their cars, they have walkie-talkies, they have access to police computer systems, and they report when they see things that look awry in their community. So they are specifically, as opposed to focus on petty crimes and theft, the police without any studies have said that this actually has led to a decrease in crime and a couple of communities.
Yeah. So they’re trying to scale up from 400 to 5,000 and somebody asked him, a reporter was like, well, if you have more police, would you need this, and the police chief was like, if we had 20,000 officers in LA, we would still ask for [00:14:00] volunteers because they know what’s going on in their neighborhoods.
And remember, you know, a famous community, Watchman, who is a part of a, like neighborhood watch group. It was George Zimmerman. That these things often lead to vigilantism. They lead to people misunderstanding their role and if we need the police at all, we certainly don’t need people to volunteering and masquerading.
And of course also recently there were two volunteers who set up a Facebook group and in the Facebook group they were saying that they should kill people, that like people should be harmed, that they need to take more action. Who was in the group? Some police officers. The LAPD is like, as soon as we found out about the group, we shut it down in those people and no longer volunteers.
But I just had no clue that we were just like farming out this work to people, especially when the police themselves aren’t performing in ways that we should model in the first place. Don’t go anywhere more Ponting to people’s coming.
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CLINT: So for my news, I’m thinking about an article that I read, um, this past week in the New York times, and it is about historically black colleges.
And so, they have been in the news because a lot of folks in the democratic primary are suggesting that [00:17:00] they are going to make these multimillion dollar investments in HBCUs tens of millions of dollars depending on the candidate, and we talked about this in the context of Bennett college before it was a all women’s college in North Carolina, one of the only, all women’s HBCUs that are still around, and it was going to lose its accreditation because they didn’t have the money to financially secure their status.
They, I think, ultimately got temporary accreditation, but I think it is reflective of the financial precarity that a lot of HBCUs are experiencing and so just to remind folks how important HPC use are to the black community and to the sort of larger project of American higher education.
Uh, HBC use make up only 3% of four year colleges in the entire country, but they have produced 80% of the nation’s black judges. 50% of it’s black doctors, 27% of all black people who graduate with a degree in STEM come from black colleges and HBCUs is have trained 50%. Half of the black teachers [00:18:00] in this country, and that’s coming from only 3% of the schools in the entire country.
So these is one of the most central parts of American higher education, and it is certainly the central part of what it means to lift black people from poverty into the middle class and into upper middle class and to those professional jobs. But as I mentioned, there’s a lot of financial precarity going on as a result of rising college costs, student loan crisis, federal budget cuts.
These have really hamstrung higher education at large, but it is disproportionately impacted HBCUs where nearly three in five attendees are low income first generation students. Over 70% of students have limited financial resources. 15 of these institutions have closed since 1997, public and private HBCU endowments take them together and now roughly 70% smaller than that of non HBCUs.
Private, historically, black colleges saw a 42% decline in federal funding between 2003 and 2015 and HBCUs and are awarding fewer doctorates than they did in 1977 according [00:19:00] to a new report and a, another report found that the six year graduation rates at 20 HBCUs that they examined were 20% lower than they were in 2015.
And a lot of what I also think about too is, as you all know, I’m a PhD student at Harvard and I’m very grateful to be there. Um, I am also cognizant of the fact that a Harvard gets millions and millions and tens of millions and a hundred millions of dollars in donations from very wealthy people every single year.
They get these enormous gifts and they have an endowment of $40 billion. And I only exist in this world and I only have the life that I do in the career that I do and have been able to build this life for my family because of HBCUs. And so when I see like a Michael Bloomberg give up almost $2 billion to Johns Hopkins, I think it is fantastic and I’m thrilled for the low income students who will benefit from it.
I also just wonder like how far that money would go if it were spread across like 50 HBCUs and how it would literally keep all of these places float. So I think it is important for us to consider. Now, there are so many HBCUs who need this funding, and because I think it’s important to walk the walk, I started a [00:20:00] monthly donation to Dillard University in which is a historically black university in my hometown, because I think it’s important to support these institutions on a recurring basis and to know that they will have our support.
So if you can find a place in your town, your area, a place that you used to go to school. Somebody you know goes to school outside, you know, Morehouse, Howard, Spellman. Those are the big places. They often get a lot of support and they need support, but consider one of the smaller HBCUs. When you think about your end of year donations this year.
BRITTANY: Speaking of black institutions that black folates built for themselves, I want to talk about Seneca village, if you’ve never heard of it.
That makes a lot of sense because it is essentially underground, underneath what we all have come to know and love as New York Central Park. This was a black community that was essentially forced out by the parks creation in the 1850s, it was the home to a number of black educators, black leaders, people who possessed a lot of wealth, and in particular, there was a monument being built to honor one of the families, the Lyons family, not from the cast of empire, but a black family.
During that time who [00:21:00] leveraged that wealth to support freedom work and directly support black people impacted by the injustice of the time. So the Lyons family owned property, were educators and they were dedicated abolitionists. Maricha Lyons taught and led in Brooklyn schools for nearly 50 years in the late 1800s and early 1900s
And she viewed herself, as she said, as someone who educated the masses rather than the classes, she wanted to make sure that whatever education and intelligence she had, she was using to benefit the most folks possible. She helped found the Woman’s Loyal Union, which worked on issues like school integration and worked alongside people like Ida B Wells to end lynching in America.
Her father, Albro Lyons, ran a boarding house for black sailors, that was also a stop along the underground railroad. In 1863 during the New York draft riots, that sailor home was stormed three times by a mob looking to strike at the heart of the community to stop the black sailors who boarded there, from trying to work on the docks [00:22:00] and to also harm the cause of abolition because this was a place where a lot of folks met and organized for that movement.
This comes amidst the introduction of other statues that are doing more to highlight the rich and diverse history across this country. Obviously we’d been having a lot of conversations about what to do with confederate statues, but there’s a question here about what we should be replacing them with.
For example, New York City moved a statue of J Marion Sims because it was discovered that, while he made important gynecological advancements that he did so by operating on enslave black women, who by the very nature of their status in society, couldn’t have refused because they lacked political agency and of course, bodily autonomy.
So committees like She Built New York City are also trying to increase the gender imbalance in the city’s memorials. I talk about this all the time that we get obsessed with the idea of battling, that we get clear on the things that we want to tear down, the things that should no longer be, including statues of Confederates and things that honor people like J Marion Sims, but what do we do in its place?
[00:23:00] What do we, not just battle against, but what do we build for future generations to ensure that the wrong stories are not told and the right stories are.
CLINT: You know, I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year or so, the project I’m working on for this book about the stories we tell ourselves about this country and the stories that we don’t, and I think that this is emblematic of what it means to think not only about what we tear down, but what we put up.
And what are the stories that we are that are lost that will give us a fuller sense of this country, a fuller sense of this history. I’ve been saying this kind of ad nauseum online and to people whenever I go give talks, but as important as the sort of monuments are as important as these statues are, and they are incredibly important, I’d be the first to say that sometimes we forget that the most important monuments are the folks who are like sitting right next to us, and I want to continue to encourage people to interview your grandparents and your parents and people in your community and in your lives who’ve experienced a different world than we have, who experienced different [00:24:00] facets of society.
Again, I’ve spent time interviewing my grandfather who grew up in 1930s Jim Crow, Mississippi, and my grandmother who grew up in 1940s Jim Crow, Florida. And there’s so many things I thought about, I knew about their lives, and I’m realizing that there. Are so many stories I never heard until I asked, you know, even if you’re not black, the stories of of parents who and grandparents who immigrated to this country, the stories of people who just lived in an America that looked so much different than the one that we live in now, and maybe looks similar to the one that we live in now in unfortunate ways.
But as we think about monuments, as we think about memorials, as we think about history, as we think about the stories that we are told and the ones we’re not told, I think it’s really important to take advantage of people who are still here with us to get a sense of what those stories are as well.
DERAY: So what is interesting about a Seneca that I didn’t know, and Brittany, thanks for bringing this, I had heard this story before, but I didn’t know as much about it. I didn’t know that a quarter of the people that lived in New York City at the time of the American revolution were black. That the reason that Seneca mattered is two thirds of the people were black, [00:25:00] actually, who lived in the park before they imminent domained it.
But the other third were Irish and they moved everybody out. Which was interesting. But what was really important, is that one of the only ways to be safe during that period of time was to form villages, right. To like, live around people who were all free, right? Like to make a community. So the damaging part of what they did in building Central Park is not only that they took the land, but all of a sudden the people had to disperse and find new community and find new homes and they couldn’t all be in the same place.
And it’s that sort of disruption that black people in this country have had to experience over and over and over again. Once you build a community, the community is torn down for some purpose that seems to be more important than your community, and then later you realize it really just benefits one part of society and doesn’t even benefit people that look like you.
The other thing that I thought was interesting is that all across New York City, they are still uncovering slave burials. So, Sam talked about the one that they discovered sort of in Manhattan. There’s one very close to city hall that they were doing some renovation and then they [00:26:00] discovered a whole slave burial ground.
There was another one, and we can appreciate this on the pod because most of us are teachers, is that there’s another one that a teacher in his students actually found in Hunts Point The Bronx is that there’s a park, and he found a picture, somebody brought him a picture that seemed to suggest from the 1900s that there was a slave burial ground in the park.
Him and his students went out and sure enough, they found this slave burial ground, like hidden within the middle of the park. They did some light excavation. They brought in, you know, the people who really do excavation and they uncovered a whole slave burial ground. And you think about how many of those must be all across this country, especially the 13 original colonies in the South, like how many plots of land are, there were just hundreds of bodies of black people are buried with no tombstones, no recognition.
And we talked about Tulsa last week, but there had been a lot of Tulsa’s in the country, some that you know, because they are famous. Uh, some like Rosewood, some other ones though [00:27:00] that like never really made the registering. You know, we talk a lot about the police in the sense that when you, uh, get killed in the country by police officers, the newspaper doesn’t write about you, then you don’t exist.
Is that you think about how many atrocities happen to people of color that the newspaper just didn’t write about, and how much history was forgotten. So I’m hopeful that in, you know, as this Renaissance of sort of black studies is happening again for a generation, that we just start to uncover some of these things and not repeat, uh, the damaging things that have happened in the past.
So my news is about cell phones are relationship between cell phones and, uh, violent crime and drug use. So there’s a really cool study that came out recently in the Atlantic. They wrote about it in, I’ll just take you to the end of first, it’s a working paper that’s in the National Bureau of Economic Research and what the economists suggest is that the arrival of cell phones change the landscape of gang conflict and drug sales. So they predict that the presence of phones can [00:28:00] explain 19 to 29% of the decline in homicides that were seen from 1990 to 2000. What they’re saying is that it wasn’t that people weren’t selling drugs or doing drugs anymore, but all of a sudden your body didn’t have to be on the corner protecting turf.
That you no longer had to have look all people in the same way and just the whole physical infrastructure of selling drugs to like meet up and make purchases, watch out for the police, that all of a sudden cell phones allowed you to do that in a way that was just safer, that was safer in the sense of violent crime.
That protecting turf just meant something very different. And this is in a, a host of research that is trying to figure out how violent crime dropped as dramatically as it did in the 90s and the 2000s and how do we not attribute that to what Giuliani wants to call broken windows policing.
And I thought this was just really interesting as like a, as a way to think about some of the effects on crime that like people just don’t think about it. So I wanted to bring that here.
SAM: This is interesting because there has been so much debate [00:29:00] over the past several years into what explains the massive drop in crime since the 1980s and you know, this is something where, you know, on the right, a lot of conservatives and police are saying, well, it’s because we invested in more police in prisons and there was the `94 crime bill and we locked a whole bunch of people up and of course, those people tended to be black and brown.
Um, and that’s why the crime rate reduced, but then you have reports that actually look into this, like the Brennan Center did a pretty comprehensive investigation into the causes of the crime decline and the relationship to policing. And they found that the massive increase in resources for police had between 0 and 5% impact on the decline in crime rates over that time. So anywhere from no impact at all to a very tiny impact, and then you have studies like this that completely reframe the conversation to not at all be thinking about police and prisons and centering them as somehow playing an important role in addressing crime, which we know they do not.
[00:30:00] But, instead looking at factors like the prevalence of cell phones or factors like lead poisoning, right? And the impact of lead poisoning on behavior and developmental growth. You have issues like even the weather, the climate warming, and the impact of temperature. So, like there are all of these other factors, environmental factors that are not explained by policing that impact crime, that impacts what happens in terms of conflict in communities.
And so I’m always fascinated by these studies that completely reframe the conversation to focus on the variety of factors that are often not thought about, that are often not considered, particularly by policymakers who tend to look towards the police as the only way to address issues of crime and communities.
BRITTANY: Sam, I’m glad that you brought up that point because that was the thing that really stood out to me, that the confirmation bias of people who already operate in government systems to say, of course it’s the solutions that we came up with. More police, more incarceration, tactics like stop and frisk, broken windows policing that have led [00:31:00] to a reduction in crime.
And so I’m glad to see that other explanations are out there. Um, and you know, even after, being the avid consumer of television that I am, and seeing shows like The Wire, it never occurred to me what an important role that cell phones and shows like that play, right. You can even say that that is its own cast of characters, right?
The burner phones and the conversations about them, so to say nothing of the scripts or of the enterprise. I do think that it is really valuable, as you were saying, Sam, to have an alternate explanation. What I hope that doesn’t the lead to is an unnecessary clamping down on how people in low income spaces are using their cell phones and how they’re being spied on and all of those kinds of things.
So there’s always a pro and con to understanding this kind of information. But I am glad to see that we can broaden our understanding about what happened because it has different implications for what then people will do.
DERAY: That’s the news. Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save The People. Stay [00:32:00] tuned. There’s more to come.
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BRITTANY: So listen, y’all, we know everyone and their mom, their sister, their brother, their dog, they’re all making podcasts now. So thanks for continuing to listen to ours. We’d like to ask you to make a little more room in your lineup for, We Live Here from St. Louis public radio and PRX.
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And now my conversation with Romesh, the author of Beyond the Valley: How Innovators Around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow.
Ramesh, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
RAMESH: Oh, I’m so happy to be with you. DeRay. Thank you for having me.
DERAY: You do so much. Not only a professor, but you started the Digital Cultures Lab. When did your fascination with the internet come? Like how did, you could’ve studied a million things, why the internet in this way?
RAMESH: Well, you know, a lot of us sort of came up in college days a little bit in high school days, sort of seeing the internet emerge and wondering what it was.
And you know, also. It’s just important to remember the internet was publicly funded. It was funded by taxpayers. [00:36:00] Even the web itself was a nonprofit initiative. So, you know, the internet had the sense for somebody like me, um, of being this open playground, a space for communities of all forms, a space for, you know, diversity in different forums.
Um, it was also so exciting for me. I was one of those kids who was an artist and a humanist, you know, at my core, super into music and art, but also really excited by technology, especially technologies that I felt had the potential to radically democratize our world and our society, decentralize power in various ways.
I was sort of thinking about all of these issues, partly because I was just sort of schooled in that way, and I was just very influenced, you know, as a younger person by social movements and peoples based movements. Um, and I sort of saw the internet as a potential catalyst to support such movements, but also extend and grow those in their number and in their scale.
DERAY: I have questions about the way we use the internet for [00:37:00] advocacy and organizing, but I guess before that, can you talk about the lab? Like why the lab? You could have studied the internet without starting the Digital Cultural Lab. Why the lab?
RAMESH: Yeah, so as academics, sometimes we have the feeling that we’re writing stuff, but all of our work, you know, stays in these elite academic restricted publications.
And to me, I’ve just never been about that on any level at all. I come from people in communities and my service and my inspiration are people in communities. So the lab is my attempt to kind of grow what I do far beyond me to try my best to link scholars and activists of all different forms, computer scientists, you know, artists, as I mentioned, designers, economists, social scientists, anthropologists across the University of California system, people who are actually writing about the internet and technology’s real impact on people’s real lives.
Across the world. And you know, one of the sort of biggest insights I had many years ago when I started kind of getting into the space was that [00:38:00] the meaning of technology is almost never understood by its creators. Right? And so, you know, like you create it in the lab or you create it in a cubicle or whatever, and then it spreads the world. But the impact of technology is actually something that’s materially felt by people in their everyday lives. It’s about what you do with technology, how you impact your voice onto technology, how you shape technologies to support your own interests. So if you look across the world.
And this is a lot of what I write about. You see, just incredible, you know, DIY, like community based uses of technology that just open up our entire consciousness of what technologies can mean and what they stand for. And so you just rarely understand technology by thinking about, you know, how many clicks or can people use it.
You really understand it by seeing the incredible effects and impacts it can potentially have on people’s lives thousands of miles away from Silicon Valley.
DERAY: It seems like the big tech companies with Facebook sort of leading the way, they feel like they’re under threat, [00:39:00] whereas like people like me, activists, we feel like we’re under threat from Facebook.
So how does that work? How does a company like Facebook sort of, and you saw Zuckerberg recently did the whole like misinformation sort of, okay, we’re going to allow this to happen. How does that flourish in this moment and is there anything we can do.
RAMESH: Yeah. There’s so much we can do. There is bi-partisan, cross demographic support across this country probably for pretty different reasons politically, demographically, economically for doing something about technology. I don’t know if you saw the Vox poll that kinda came out a couple of weeks ago, but it basically shows across the board, Americans favor some sort of regulatory, or at least what I call a digital bill of rights or digital bill of justice platform for technology.
So yes, working people, communities of color, indigenous people, in some cases, women are all under threat because technologies tend to reinforce biases and voices and values of the powerful, despite perhaps good [00:40:00] intentions from some of their, you know, executives or engineers. So, for the question of, uh, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook feeling under threat? Well, they’re getting a lot of scrutiny. People have a lot of anxiety and concerns about how these technology platforms are behavioral, manipulative black boxes that can take us down, all sorts of, at times, radicalizing rabbit holes. They can be very anti civic in their impact.
So the heat is on the tech companies by a lot of folks. A lot of writers like myself and, and activists. But that doesn’t mean that their bottom line is changing at all. If you look at Facebook sort of overall valuation, and this is even more so the case with Amazon, which has been selling facial recognition software to ICE.
You know, we should just call it out for what it is. Um, these companies are growing, they’re worth more, and they’re aggregating more revenues than any companies in the history of the world. And, you know, let’s bring Google in there. The biggest lobbyist in the US government has had involvement with project Maven, you know, with Department of Defense uses, you know, rhetorically like positive and [00:41:00] inclusive language.
But then when you look at the actual actions, companies by their very vocabulary and definition are intended to do one thing and one thing only based on their accountability, which is grow. And it’s all about speculated valuation. That’s the way, you know, sort of large scale capitalism functions.
And so in a sense that can end up having, whether it’s intentional or not, disastrous effects for those who are not valued by those companies. Um, those of us who are worth less in their minds because we simply don’t have the resources where they necessarily need to or want to be accountable for us.
So, you know, the book is calling these issues out, but it’s showing, and my new book called Beyond the Valley, calling these issues out, but saying, here are a bunch of things we can do for a digital world that is inclusive just and in our better image as human beings.
And I’ve been trying to share these ideas, I’m sort of, I’m now a surrogate and adviser to Bernie Sanders campaign, but I’ve actually shared some of these ideas to some of the other campaigns as well in the [00:42:00] democratic primary system.
DERAY: And Beyond the Valley, the big idea is this notion of what the internet has done to society and you know, there’s some people who would say, right, that like the trade offs are worth it.
That, yeah, we have the Google searches and the Amazon purchases and the, I dunno, the keystrokes and the WhatsApp and the messenger, but that technology has like led to a net positive that like us being able to connect in this way allow for the creation of people like me to be activists, right?
That like the tools do more good than harm? Do you think that is fair? Is that like not the right way to look at the problem?
RAMESH: You know, the question is, is with what trade offs do we accept? What conveniences, right? Do we have to accept the efficiency of being able to find a lot of valuable information on a Google search or buy various products in a very convenient way via Amazon?
I’m not sure how efficient Facebook is, but it’s certainly good for optimizing our attention, which is benefiting them. Does that efficiency have to come with the [00:43:00] cost of being in a behavioral black box, right? Where the content you’re fed is based on an algorithmic calculation for one thing and one thing only.
Keeping your attention, keeping you glued, releasing the dopamine in your brain, right? So the question for me is, can we build and design technologies and challenge these companies to build technologies that yes can support their interests, fair enough, but not in a way that zero sum where all of us pretty much more or less are left behind, or there are these sort of positive examples, like, you know, your ability to be well known thanks to social media or you know, Senator Sander’s ability to use the internet as a way to bring working people together and, you know, contributing $17 or $29 or whatever it is,you know, that’s one aspect and that kind of resembles the internet of the past of 10 years ago, we used to use the term crowd sourcing or like, you know, everybody coming together and overwhelming and overcoming the structure of power.
Of the wealthy and [00:44:00] powerful in a sense. However, what the internet has also turned into, more and more, as we all leak data off of our mobile phones, 24/7, 365 combined with computational advances in processing technology where all that data can be processed by algorithmic systems, and the fact that anything, any data we release can be stored because everything is stored now on servers in some of which are in like Iceland and Scandinavia.
But the internet has turned into is an ability to take all that data and send us all down, self-serving for these companies, rabbit holes, behavioral rabbit holes, and as a result, that has anti civic effects. Because sure, I have the opportunity to see your posts DeRay, when I go onto Twitter or search for you when I’m on Twitter or on Facebook or what have you, but I may not see or post what might be fed to me is based on a calculation made by, uh, the most complex mathematical system, multi-billions of matrix algebra [00:45:00] is being calculated for one effect in one effect only.
Keep me on there. Keep me online. Be my bedfellow at all times. And what that ends up meaning is that ends up dividing us. It ends up manipulating us, not just behaviorally, but it, it’s correlated to depression amongst youth. Um, it has disastrous effects when it comes to, uh, political mobilization and democracy on its core.
And most importantly. These systems and technologies are a legacy. They resembled the value systems, and I’m not saying these are bad people, but they always- technologies always resemble and mirror the voices and values of their creators, right? So like, it turns out our engineers tend to be dominantly male, uh, largely a white Caucasian, and to some extent Asian, right?
So that is hardly a representative sample of the global population of billions of people. Black, brown, largely, right? Most internet users, most Facebook users that are [00:46:00] black or brown, right? Not the people here in North America. So there are these asymmetries that occur. Point one is, technology is always resemble mirror the values and voices of their creators.
When I write something or write a book or paint a painting or engineer a system, I do it based on who I am. I have implicit bias. It’s a truth. Second though, is these technologies are learning systems, AI technologies. They learn from data sets that are out there. That’s why Microsoft introduced a Twitter chat bot that turned homophobic, racist, xenophobic, and started hashtagging MAGA within, I think a couple of days.
That’s why when you searched for images of black people on Google’s image recognition system, you would get images of gorillas instead. That’s why facial recognition systems across the board by every American tech company, but Chinese ones as well. This is a key point.
Uh, misidentify Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, and Oprah all across the board as a male. That’s why predictive policing [00:47:00] systems is, you know, better than anybody are vilifying black and brown and working communities right here in Los Angeles. Fortunately, we’ve managed to stop that. That’s why AI systems are identifying people in the congressional black caucus as criminals.
That’s why ICE facial recognition systems are misidentifying people who are documented as undocumented. You know, even if you accept what I see as the cruelty of ICE and the cruelty of our president. So this is a huge issue. That’s why it’s time to like, fix it right now because it’s otherwise it’s going to end up polarizing and costing us even more and amplifying the profound inequalities that we see in this country.
So I see these things as opportunities and that’s why I’m, you know, trying to move way beyond academia and really argue in this book Beyond the Valley for a, a digital world of justice, of equity that represents our best selves as human beings.
DERAY: But what is the way to fix it is that, you know, Instagram is actually probably the best example of an algorithm that people complain about all the time.
Right? The people who are like, I see [00:48:00] what it’s curated and I don’t see [00:48:01] you blah blah blah. Like that is the algorithm I hear the most complaints about. But like what would be the fix? I guess the only thing I hear people say who aren’t experts, admittedly, which is why we’re talking to you, is that they want it to be just straight up chronological but is there not a way that technology can get things in front of us that, that should be in front of us. I dunno,is there a middle ground.
RAMESH: Yeah, there is. Um, and so I think a lot of it is not even rooted in the interface of a technology like Instagram. It’s rooted in, um, a much larger set of issues.
Here’s a few thoughts I have. First of all, people need to know what data about them are being collected. It needs to be disclosed. It can be disclosed in kind of general ways like, you know, this is, this is what we know about you. First of all, second of all, people need to know how that data that’s collected about them is transacted into what they ended up seeing online.
These are things that we call heuristically. They can just basically be explained to people in heuristic ways. Third of all. I don’t know if you’re fully aware of this DeRay, but you know, I can not only get your Facebook data, but you know who I am or maybe who you are on [00:49:00] Facebook doesn’t represent all aspects of yourself, of course.
Right? But I can also go buy your credit card data and then I can cross correlate that data to build intimate, detailed psychological as well as demographic profiles of who you are. Right? Cause who we are in different facets of our life. We’re all leaving digital footprints are a big issue. So those are three things right away we can do on the process of collecting and monitoring and disclosing.
And these are some things that Edward Snowden also was making the point about in his book that just came out. However, I think these issues are much more systemic. We need algorithmic systems that are going to influence our societies like policing systems, those systems, if we are going to use them at all, should be designed directly by the communities that are going to be otherwise harms, are vilified by those systems, right?
So we need auditing, right? But we also need inclusive, collaborative design processes. Um, so some of these algorithms work in mysterious ways. They can be kind of annoying and disorienting, but they’re actually [00:50:00] almost always trying to curate and send us down various rabbit holes.
So what I want to do is open up like all the boxes, all the like sort of hidden workings that are all around technology, which is really about like data and surveillance and the capture of data, because my argument is these issues are not just about individual privacy. They are about communities and collectivities, right?
They’re about workers. They’re about people of color again, et cetera. Right? That’s what I’m arguing in Beyond the Valley for a digital bill of rights. Because it has to be much more expensive and I’m glad that some things have been done, like the gig economy being a unionized here in California, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
So what we see in the campaign right now is, you know, some people giving some attention to this, but it’s a little bit gimmicky and there’s not a great understanding that this isn’t really about technology. It’s about the language by which human possibilities are going to be expressed and directed moving forward.
DERAY: Is there a reason why people feel more threatened by Facebook than the other platforms? Like you think about [00:51:00] Trump uses Twitter and Facebook obviously, but it seems like the ads that he uses are so heavily just Facebook ads. Is it simply because they’re just more people on the platform, or is there something else? I don’t know.
RAMESH: It’s primarily because Facebook’s are the main way Americans get the news. Now, Facebook is the biggest media company in the history of the world. It’s just important to understand that these companies like to call themselves technology companies, Uber, Airbnb, Lyft, they call themselves technology companies.
If you actually look at their branding, but also even how they call themselves, but they are the biggest companies of each of their facets. You know, hotels, taxis and in Facebook media in the history of the world. So, you know, we know the data from 2016, Americans received their news via Facebook, which actually disenfranchises in many ways, traditional journalists.
That’s a huge crisis. But what do they receive. Who does it come from and how can what appears to be news actually be a form of directed, targeted, uh, political and psychological [00:52:00] manipulation as we saw with the Russians and Cambridge Analytica. Right? So that is why I think people are so stressed out about Facebook.
I think it’s because it’s large scale use. I think it’s designed to optimize for inflammatory behavior. So is Twitter to some extent. Um, the inflammatory goes viral, right? Because as human beings, when we see things that are inflammatory, we pay attention to them and that’s why they both work perfectly for President Trump.
But it’s more importantly that Facebook is a much more invisible platform by which the world is being fed, the news world, even as being fed to us in ways that are designed for one thing and one thing only to keep- to arouse our emotions, to get us online. That dopamine that fires in our brains.
So Twitter will functions in that way. I noted the interesting exchange between Senator Harris and Senator Warren in the last debate. Twitter does optimize itself for engagement. This is the term they use, engagement. Another way would be disorientation and, and getting peeved [00:53:00] or, or being distressed, but Facebook is really the bell cow of all of it because they are the media network.
They’re the place where you can share the YouTube videos, where you can share the news. So it’s the platform by which our social experience is being curated for us, for their benefit, and not necessarily ours, or certainly we don’t have any voice over what we see.
DERAY: And the last question is, what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you.
RAMESH: Well, one for me is to just do everything I can to like hold space and listen. Um, a lot of my work historically before this book and some of the work that’s described in beyond the Valley involves examples and stories from me working with indigenous peoples on different parts of the world, looking at technology in relation to their lives.
And Native American communities, community movements that I admire a great deal, like Black Lives Matter and so on. And what I’ve learned is, you know, it’s really easy as an academic to talk, as you [00:54:00] can tell, I enjoy it with you. Um, it’s much harder for all of us to just hold that space and listen and observe.
And I think that is what completely changed my career. You know, I’m an engineer, but I’m now much more of a storyteller and a social scientist and hopefully someone who can push progressive issues forward. And all of that came out of a space of just being silent, uh, listening, observing, observing one’s breath, chilling, kinda just really.
Learning from others. Um, and the thing that you see is like, for example, in Wahaca where I was doing my work, these indigenous communities building their own cell phone networks, it’s not just them building their own cell phone networks. They have values systems, cosmologies based on concepts of collectivity.
It’s pretty powerful, right? And so if you see people and you learn from people by listening and observing that they have those completely different worldviews than the Western, Cartesian [00:55:00] kind of model of ourselves as separate from nature. Then you sort of say, hey, they’re building this technology, but in a completely different way.
They’re building this technology as part of their lands as part of their planet. It’s examples like that that I like to tell stories about, uh, in Beyond the Valley to open up our entire understanding of who we are and humanity and then shape this technology in our own image, in our own diversity, our global diversity, and even diversity right here in the United States.
DERAY: There we go. Well, thanks so much for doing this on Pod Save The People, we consider you a friend of the pod.
RAMESH: Thank you DeRay, for having me.
DERAY: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save The People this week. Tell your friends to check it out, make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple podcast or somewhere else, and we’ll see you next week.