Category Archives: Commentary

Apple’s Fight with the FBI: A Follow Up

Cracked iPhone. Camron Flanders via Flickr.

Cracked iPhone. Camron Flanders via Flickr.

In the end, the Apple-FBI dispute was solved when the FBI cracked Apple’s security—without assistance. This is great for the FBI, but terrible for Apple, which now has, as the New York Times reports, an image problem. “Apple is a business, and it has to earn the trust of its customers,” says one security company executive in the Times. “It needs to be perceived as having something that can fix this vulnerability as soon as possible.”

In taking on the FBI in the San Bernardino case, Apple, it seems, had hoped to create the perception of an absolute commitment to security. Creating an iPhone that not even the state could crack was important to Apple’s image in a post-Snowden era. No doubt Apple must have marketing data that suggests as much.

But now, everybody knows Apple’s “security” can be breached, with or without the help of Apple’s engineers. If the FBI had deliberately picked a public fight with Apple (which nothing suggests they did), it could hardly have orchestrated a better response to Apple’s refusal to cooperate with the San Bernardino investigation: The FBI got what it wanted while undermining the very claim on which Apple staked its case in the court of public opinion, leaving Apple frantically trying to figure out how they did it.

Of course, as the security executive says, Apple is a business. Still, in an age of complaints about  corporate profits taking precedence over the needs of civic life, I continue to be mystified by Apple’s stance, which—whatever the company’s claims—makes sense only as a strategy to maintain or further maximize its profits. In this case, Apple has shown little regard for that which the relative security of a society actually depends: legitimate forensic work, due process, and the state’s (yes, the state’s, which, unlike corporations or private security firms, is publicly accountable) capacity to gauge future threats and reasonably intervene within the confines of the law. Yet “security” is to Apple a marketing problem, not a civic problem.

As I stated in my earlier, longer, and admittedly more thoughtful post about this matter, I think that Apple could have cooperated in this particular case, as they had done in past cases, with relatively little harm to the company’s reputation and with real forensic good being done. Of course, cooperation would have meant that the only wall between your iPhone and the FBI would have been the law itself, but isn’t that the whole point of liberal societies? Lex Rex—law over all, including the FBI, and including Apple’s image.

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The Public, the Private, and Apple’s Fight with the FBI

Apple CEO Tim Cook (2012). Mike Deerkoski via Flickr.

Apple CEO Tim Cook (2012). Mike Deerkoski via Flickr.

Apple is resisting the FBI’s request that the company write software to help unlock the IPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, the perpetrator, with Tashfeen Malik, of the massacres in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 2015. Apple is said to worry that if it lets the FBI into Farook’s phone, it will open a global can of worms, and set a precedent for doing the same thing for less “friendly” governments. And a “back door” to individual phone data will compromise overall security, leaving phones vulnerable, in Tim Cook’s words, to “hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission.”

Since the appearance of the Snowden documents, it’s hard for many of us, at least on the level of sentiment, to root for the US government wanting access to phone data. Though the case is complex (and Apple has unlocked phones for the FBI before), the surveillance state is a remarkably frightening prospect, and even the very targeted, essentially forensic, aims of the FBI in the San Bernardino case understandably evoke worries.

But Apple’s battle with the FBI brings to mind Bob Dylan’s quip that “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” We face something like the classic high-school English class choice between Orwell’s “Big Brother” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.” If the FBI concerns us, Apple should, perhaps, concern us even more.

As Hannah Arendt makes clear in The Human Condition, privacy never stands alone: It always has its co-dependents—especially, the public, the political, and the social. Changes in the meaning of “privacy” mean changes in the meaning of the “public,” and the other way around. The private and the public are interlocking political concerns.

In other words, whenever you are faced with a debate about privacy, also ask what the implications of the debate’s potential outcomes are for public life. Continue reading

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Beyond the Reveal: Toward Other Hermeneutics


Part III: Toward other Hermeneutics

I want to make clear here that I believe we need to keep pushing for new research—new policies and practices that help ensure just algorithmic processes at work inside our infrastructures. (See posts one and two of “Beyond the Reveal.”) If our search engines, pricing structures, law enforcement or trade practices depend on or enact unlawful, unethical, or unjust algorithmic processes, we need to have ways of stopping them. We need accountability for these processes, and in some cases that will also mean we need transparency.

But, as urban studies scholar Dietmar Offenhuber points out in Accountability Technologies, accountability isn’t inextricably linked to transparency. In fact, some forms of revelation about opaque processes may do more harm than good to the public. If we make information access a priority over “answerability and enforcement” when it comes to just algorithmic infrastructures, Offenhuber warns, we may not achieve our goals.

So there may be times when “opening the box” might not be the best path to dealing with the possibility of unjust systems. And it is almost certainly the case that our black box metaphors aren’t helping us much in research or advocacy when it comes to charting alternatives.

In my own collaborative work on a Facebook user study, my co-authors and I focused primarily on a question directed to users: “Did you know there’s a black box here, and what do you think it’s doing?” The results of this study have set us on a path to at least learning more about how people make sense of these experiences. But in some ways, our work stands to get stuck on the “reveal,” the first encounter with the existence of a black box. Such reveals are appealing for scholars, artists, and activists—we sometimes like nothing better than to pull back a curtain. But  because of our collective habit of establishing new systems to extricate ourselves from old ones, that reveal can set us on a path away from deliberative and deliberate shared social spaces that support our fullest goals for human flourishing.

I confess that at this point, I bring more cautions about black box hermeneutics than I bring alternatives. I’ll conclude this post by at least pointing to a path forward and demonstrating one possible angle of approach.

My critique of black box metaphors so far leads me to the following questions about our work with technologies:

  1. How else might we deal with the unknown, the obscured or opaque besides “revealing” it?
  2. Do we have to think of ourselves as outside a system in order to find agency in relation to that system?
  3. Can interface serve to facilitate an experience that is more than cognitive, and a consciousness not ordered by the computational?

As Beth Novwiskie pointed out in a response to this post in lecture form, we already have at least one rich set of practices for addressing these questions: that of interpretive archival research. Are not the processes by which a corpus of documents come to exist in an archive as opaque as any internet search ranking algorithm? Isn’t part of the scholar’s job to account for that process as she interprets the texts, establishing the meaning of such texts in light of their corporeal life? And aren’t multiple sensoria at work in such a process, only some of which are anticipated by the systems of storage and retrieval at hand? Understood as “paper machines” and technologies in their own right, certainly the histories of how scholars and readers built their lives around epistles, chapbooks, encyclopedias, and libraries have much to offer our struggles to live with unknown algorithms.

We might also, however, look to the realms of art, design, and play for some productive alternatives. Take for example, the latest black box to take techno-consumption by storm—Apple’s iWatch. This object’s use is almost certainly headed in the direction of integration into users’ lives as a facilitator of new daily routines and systems, especially by the quantified self set. Other writers on this blog have already helpfully set the new box in the context of its precedent in meditative practices or contemporary tech labor. But as we work to understand how the new systems involve us in new, opaque processes, a glance at some more intentionally opaque neighbors might be of help. In my next post, I’ll set a few recent objects and experiences next to the iWatch for comparison for how they invite distinct incorporation into the rhythms of daily attention, thought and action.

Kevin Hamilton is an artist and researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where as an Associate Professor he holds appointments in several academic units across theory, history, and practice of digital media. He is currently at work with Infernal Machine contributor Ned O’Gorman on a history of film in America’s nuclear weapons programs; other recent work includes a collaboration with colleagues at Illinois’ Center for People and Infrastructures on the ethics of algorithms in internet and social media platforms.

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Beyond the Reveal: A Metaphor’s Effect


In my last post, I described how the black box emerges historically with the extrication of (at least some) laborers from the machines of industrial labor. The cost of this move is that the laborer, now outside the machine as an operator, must herself operate as black box. The interface between the laborer and machine becomes central to this new relationship, especially as managers and technologists focus on how constantly to reconfigure the interactions between and among human-machine pairs.

In recounting this history of a metaphor, I aim toward a critique of how black box metaphors are used today to describe opaque technological processes. And I don’t mean to suggest that any use of a black box metaphor inadvertently invokes a whole history of labor and interface. But I do think we can surmise from this history a dominant narrative that draws heavily from the black box metaphor:

  1. As an “infrastructural inversion,” the black box metaphor creates the possibility, for some, of imagining themselves as outside a system that formerly may not have been visible at all.
  2. Where and when this happens, interfaces emerge and gain prominence as a point of mediation with the formerly invisible system.
  3. Design for interaction between the user and the “black boxed” process tends to imagine the human mind as another form of black box, emphasizing cognitive over manual processes.
  4. The new system comprised by this user and her machine then starts the process anew—the user/worker has been incorporated into a new system that she may not actually see unless naming a new “black box.”
  5. This narrative will also depend on the exclusion of some who need to “stay behind” and keep the system going within the “old” forms of labor.

To describe a process as a black box thus potentially sets in motion a whole series of implications for sensation, knowledge, labor, and social organization.

Let’s look at this, for example, in light of new attention brought to the role of algorithms in Facebook use (an effort in which I have been involved as a scholar). How does describing the Facebook algorithm as a black box set us on a particular narrative of analysis and research?

Let’s imagine a Facebook user who is not yet aware of the algorithm at work in her social media platform. The process by which her content appears in others’ feeds, or by which others’ material appears in her own, is opaque to her. Approaching that process as a black box, might well situate our naive user as akin to the Taylorist laborer of the pre-computer, pre-war era. Prior to awareness, she blindly accepts input and provides output in the manufacture of Facebook’s product. Upon learning of the algorithm, she experiences the platform’s process as newly mediated. Like the post-war user, she now imagines herself outside the system, or strives to be so. She tweaks settings, probes to see what she has missed, alters activity to test effectiveness. She grasps at a newly-found potential to stand outside this system, to command it. We have a tendency to declare this a discovery of agency—a revelation even.

But maybe this grasp toward agency is also the beginning of a new system. The black box metaphor suggests that such providers will also need to design for the user who tweaks. (It may even be that designing for the tweaker may be more profitable than designing a “perfect feed.”) As in previous ergonomic problems, this process will begin to imagine and construct a particular kind of mind, a particular kind of body, a particular kind of user. Tweaking to account for black-boxed algorithmic processes could become a new form of labor, one that might then inevitably find description by some as its own black box, and one to escape.

Maybe, by structuring our engagement with the experience of Facebook’s opaque processes through the black box metaphor, we’ve set ourselves up to construct a new black box, and ignored the ways in which our relations to others, within and without the present system, have been changed by our newfound awareness.

I’m struck here, for example, by how well the narrative of the black box I’ve described here fits a number of stories we’ve lived and heard regarding privacy and networked media. Whether it’s the Snowden revelations or Facebook’s unauthorized emotion study, the story often plays out the same way for many of us. We realize or remember anew just how much work we’re providing some entity within a current system, and then proceed to either alter our use patterns or abstain altogether from that system in order to remain outside that work. Debates ensue over who is complicit and who is not, and with the exception of those working in a more organized fashion to enact prosecution or new laws, most of us are stuck in an “opt-in or opt-out” scenario that never goes anywhere.

It’s likely only a matter of time before the market for more subtle responses than “opt-in or opt-out” is met with a new set of black box systems. One can imagine, for example, a range of services: free email if you submit to full surveillance and data-trolling, modestly-priced email if you submit your data for use via an anonymizer, or premium email at high costs that removes you from all data-harvesting.

Perhaps, even as we remain justifiably critical of the unseen and unknown software processes that govern and regulate a growing number of shared spaces and subjectivities, we might search for another way to live with these processes than hitting the escape button and entering a higher-level routine. More on that in my next posts.

Kevin Hamilton is an artist and researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where as an Associate Professor he holds appointments in several academic units across theory, history, and practice of digital media. He is currently at work with Infernal Machine contributor Ned O’Gorman on a history of film in America’s nuclear weapons programs; other recent work includes a collaboration with colleagues at Illinois’ Center for People and Infrastructures on the ethics of algorithms in internet and social media platforms.

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Beyond the Reveal: Living with Black Boxes


Part One: Histories

Amidst growing attention and calls to action on the role of algorithms in our everyday lives, one idea recurs: “opening the black box.” In such analyses, the “black box” describes a process that happens in secret, for which we only know the inputs and outputs, but not the steps that takes place between. How might this metaphor be structuring our approach to thinking about algorithms and their place in our lives, long before we get to the work of accounting for the social and political work of algorithmic systems?

In this first of four posts, I’ll begin an answer to this question by looking at the history of the “black box” as a way of modeling cognitive or computational processes. In the second post, I’ll offer some cautionary words about reliance on this metaphor in the important work of ensuring just systems. Finally, in the last two posts I’ll look to some alternatives to black-box-opening in our relationships to opaque technological processes.

The black box metaphor began to acquire its shape during changes in labor that took place after World War II. Whereas managers before the war had largely treated work as a series of learned behaviors, the designers of work and work environments after the war began to think less about suiting the laborer to the work, and more about suiting the work to the laborer.

More than a mere Taylorist repeater of actions, the new ideal worker of post-war Human Factors research not only acts but perceives, acting according to learned evaluative routines that correlate sensation to action. The ideal post-war laborer is not a person of a particular physical build, conditioned to perform particular motions, but rather a universalized collection of possible movements, curated and selected according to mathematical principles. Human Factors research turned the human laborer into a control for a system, a proper medium for the transfer and transformation of input.

Key to this new approach was the influence of information theory on approaches to both computing and psychology. In computing, the understanding of signals as information paved the way for a mathematics of binary code, in which the course of electrons through physical gates and switches could translate into algorithms and mathematical functions. In psychology, those who had grown weary of behaviorism’s stimulus-response approaches to explaining and modifying human action saw in Claude Shannon’s approach echoes of the structure of the human brain. These early cognitive scientists saw in thought a kind of algorithm performing consistent functions on ever-changing sense data, zipping through the brain’s neural pathways the way electrons travel through the copper of a computer’s circuits.

And so a new understanding of the operator’s actions emerged alongside a new understanding of a computer’s routines. The first software emerged at the same time that psychologists began to analyze human thought and memory as a collection of mathematical functions performed on sense data. In other words, the black box as we know it emerged as a pair of metaphors: one to describe the computational machine, and one to describe the human mind.

Before these developments, systems of manufacture and control were designed to include the human body as a “control” in the operational sense. The control in any function is a limiter, providing brackets to the acceptable inputs and possible outputs. If a laborer slows done his or her work, the entire process slows. In the new post-Taylorist work flow, in contrast, the control is performed by a computational process, rather than a human embodied one. The new computers allowed for the programming of internal black boxes within the machine itself. Information from multiple sensors, as it coursed through these machines, would be analyzed and checked for deviation. The result produced from such analyses would set certain mechanical processes in motion in order to produce a desired end.

Although the worker has been replaced by an algorithm as the system control, she or he is not missing from the scene entirely. Rather, the human operator now performs the function of a control for the control. The machine affords indications to the human operator of the proper functioning of the software-based controller. Deviations from designated functions trigger new action from the human operator, according to more advanced algorithms than required of previous industrial operators. This new human operator must synthesize multiple forms of data—visual, aural, even symbolic data—and then decide on a proper course of action, of input to the machine, according to a trained set of decision-making criteria and standards.

Though operating from more of a distance in relation to the phenomena of mechanical system function, this new, error-detecting human operator plays no less critical a role. His or her mental routines must be just as carefully scripted and trained as the Taylorist laborer’s physical actions, and often via emerging understanding of the brain as a computer.

The new operator is thus less of the system even though he or she is made more in the image of that system. Formerly one organ within a mechanical body, he now is modeled as a discrete body himself, tethered to another, mechanical body, and modeled after that body, for the purposes of safe and consistent system flow. The machine and the operator mirror one another, with the interface as their crucial site of division, the glass of reflection and action.

These changes also effect sociality through the creation of a new entity to include all agents. This new entity—the organization—invites design at a complex level that accounts for multiple machinic and human actors. Where each machine used to come with an operator as controller, the two treated as a single entity, the post war machine comes with an operator as agent, who is necessary to the proper functioning of the machine. But the human operator is separate from the machine. For large-scale projects, this doubling results in increased complexity, which the organization approaches as yet another information processing problem.

The organization, this plurality of entities, is coincident with the emergence of the interface. Machines and operators without true interfaces—as in Taylorist scenarios—are not collective in that they are not social. They are merely aggregate. Thus some of the biggest moves in computing research toward the latter half of the twentieth century were those that simultaneously addressed the interface between one operator and her machine, and the structure of all machine-human pairs, organized together into one system—one black box process.

Kevin Hamilton is an artist and researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where as an Associate Professor he holds appointments in several academic units across theory, history, and practice of digital media. He is currently at work with Infernal Machine contributor Ned O’Gorman on a history of film in America’s nuclear weapons programs; other recent work includes a collaboration with colleagues at Illinois’ Center for People and Infrastructures on the ethics of algorithms in internet and social media platforms.

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Algorithms Who Art in Apps, Hallowed Be Thy Code


If you want to understand the status of algorithms in our collective imagination, Ian Bogost, author, game designer, and professor of media studies and interactive computing at Georgia Institute of Technology,  proposes the following exercise in his recent essay in the Atlantic: “The next time you see someone talking about algorithms, replace the term with ‘God’ and ask yourself if the sense changes any?”

If Bogost is right, then more often than not you will find the sense of the statement entirely unchanged. This is because, in his view, “Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers we have allowed to replace gods in our minds, even as we simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion.” Bogost goes on to say that this development is part of a “larger trend” whereby “Enlightenment ideas like reason and science are beginning to flip into their opposites.” Science and technology, he fears, “have turned into a new type of theology.”

It’s not the algorithms themselves that Bogost is targeting; it is how we think and talk about them that worries him. In fact, Bogost’s chief concern is that how we talk about algorithms is impeding our ability to think clearly about them and their place in society. This is where the god-talk comes in. Bogost deploys a variety of religious categories to characterize the present fascination with algorithms.

Bogost believes “algorithms hold a special station in the new technological temple because computers have become our favorite idols.” Later on he writes, “the algorithmic metaphor gives us a distorted, theological view of computational action.” Additionally, “Data has become just as theologized as algorithms, especially ‘big data,’ whose name is meant to elevate information to the level of celestial infinity.” “We don’t want an algorithmic culture,” he concludes, “especially if that phrase just euphemizes a corporate theocracy.” The analogy to religious belief is a compelling rhetorical move. It vividly illuminates Bogost’s key claim: the idea of an “algorithm” now functions as a metaphor that conceals more than it reveals.

He prepares the ground for this claim by reminding us of earlier technological metaphors that ultimately obscured important realities. The metaphor of the mind as computer, for example, “reaches the rank of religious fervor when we choose to believe, as some do, that we can simulate cognition through computation and achieve the singularity.” Similarly, the metaphor of the machine, which is really to say the abstract idea of a machine, yields a profound misunderstanding of mechanical automation in the realm of manufacturing. Bogost reminds us that bringing consumer goods to market still “requires intricate, repetitive human effort.” Manufacturing, as it turns out, “isn’t as machinic nor as automated as we think it is.”

Likewise, the idea of an algorithm, as it is bandied about in public discourse, is a metaphorical abstraction that obscures how various digital and analog components, including human action, come together to produce the effects we carelessly attribute to algorithms. Near the end of the essay, Bogost sums it up this way:

The algorithm has taken on a particularly mythical role in our technology-obsessed era, one that has allowed it to wear the garb of divinity. Concepts like ‘algorithm’ have become sloppy shorthands, slang terms for the act of mistaking multipart complex systems for simple, singular ones. Of treating computation theologically rather than scientifically or culturally.

But why does any of this matter? It matters, Bogost insists, because this way of thinking blinds us in two important ways. First, our sloppy shorthand “allows us to chalk up any kind of computational social change as pre-determined and inevitable,” allowing the perpetual deflection of responsibility for the consequences of technological change. The apotheosis of the algorithm encourages what I’ve elsewhere labeled a Borg Complex, an attitude toward technological change aptly summed by the phrase, “Resistance is futile.” It’s a way of thinking about technology that forecloses the possibility of thinking about and taking responsibility for our choices regarding the development, adoption, and implementation of new technologies. Secondly, Bogost rightly fears that this “theological” way of thinking about algorithms may cause us to forget that computational systems can offer only one, necessarily limited perspective on the world. “The first error,” Bogost writes, “turns computers into gods, the second treats their outputs as scripture.”


Bogost is right to challenge the quasi-religious reverence for technology. It is, as he fears, an impediment to clear thinking. And he is not the only one calling for the secularization of our technological endeavors. Computer scientist and virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier has spoken at length about the introduction of religious thinking into the field of AI. In a recent interview, he expressed his concerns this way:

There is a social and psychological phenomenon that has been going on for some decades now:  A core of technically proficient, digitally minded people reject traditional religions and superstitions. They set out to come up with a better, more scientific framework. But then they re-create versions of those old religious superstitions! In the technical world these superstitions are just as confusing and just as damaging as before, and in similar ways.

While Lanier’s concerns are similar to Bogost’s,  Lanier’s use of religious categories is more concrete. Bogost deploys a religious frame as a rhetorical device, while Lanier’s uses it more directly to critique the religiously inflected expressions of a desire for transcendence among denizens of the tech world themselves.

But such expressions are hardly new. Nor are they limited to the realm of AI. In The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, the distinguished historian of technology David Noble made the argument that “modern technology and modern faith are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavor.”

Noble elaborates:

This is not meant in a merely metaphorical sense, to suggest that technology is similar to religion in that it evokes religious emotions of omnipotence, devotion, and awe, or that it has become a new (secular) religion in and of itself, with its own clerical caste, arcane rituals, and articles of faith. Rather it is meant literally and historically, to indicate that modern technology and religion have evolved together and that, as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.

Looking also at the space program, atomic weapons, and biotechnology, Noble devoted a chapter of his book to history of artificial intelligence,  arguing that AI research had often been inspired by a curious fixation on the achievement of god-like, disembodied intelligence as a step toward personal immortality. Many of the sentiments and aspirations that Noble identifies in figures as diverse as George Boole, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, Edward Fredkin, Marvin Minsky, Daniel Crevier, Danny Hillis, and Hans Moravec—all of them influential theorists and practitioners in the development of AI—find their consummation in the Singularity movement. The movement envisions a time—2045 is frequently suggested—when the distinction between machines and humans will blur and humanity as we know it will be eclipsed. Before Ray Kurzweil, the chief prophet of the Singularity, wrote about “spiritual machines,” Noble had astutely anticipated how the trajectories of AI, Internet, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Life research were all converging  in the age-old quest for the immortality.  Noble, who died quite suddenly in 2010, must have read the work of Kurzweil and company as a remarkable validation of his thesis in The Religion of Technology.

Interestingly, the sentiments that Noble documents alternate between the heady thrill of creating non-human Minds and non-human Life, on the one hand, and, on the other, the equally heady thrill of pursuing the possibility of radical life-extension and even immortality. Frankenstein meets Faust we might say. Humanity plays god in order to bestow god’s gifts on itself.

Noble cites one Artificial Life researcher who explains, “I feel like God; in fact, I am God to the universes I create,” and another who declares, “Technology will soon enable human beings to change into something else altogether [and thereby] escape the human condition.” Ultimately, these two aspirations come together into a grand techno-eschatological vision, expressed here by robotics specialist Hans Moravec:

Our speculation ends in a supercivilization, the synthesis of all solar system life, constantly improving and extending itself, spreading outward from the sun, converting non-life into mind …. This process might convert the entire universe into an extended thinking entity … the thinking universe … an eternity of pure cerebration.

Little wonder that Pamela McCorduck, who has been chronicling the progress of AI since the early 1980s, can say, “The enterprise is a god-like one. The invention—the finding within—of gods represents our reach for the transcendent.” And, lest we forget where we began, a more earth-bound, but no less eschatological hope was expressed by Edward Fredkin in his MIT and Stanford courses on “saving the world.” He hoped for a “global algorithm” that “would lead to peace and harmony.”

I would suggest that similar aspirations are expressed by those who believe that Big Data will yield a God’s-eye view of human society, providing wisdom and guidance that is otherwise inaccessible to ordinary human forms of knowing and thinking.

Perhaps this should not be altogether surprising. As the old saying has it, the Grand Canyon wasn’t formed by someone dragging a stick. This is just a way of saying that causes must be commensurate with the effects they produce. Grand technological projects such as space flight, the harnessing of atomic energy, and the pursuit of artificial intelligence are massive undertakings requiring stupendous investments of time, labor, and resources. What motives are sufficient to generate those sorts of expenditures? You’ll need something more than whim, to put it mildly. You may need something akin to religious devotion. Would we have attempted to put a man on the moon without the ideological spur of the Cold War, which cast space exploration as a field of civilizational battle for survival? Consider, as a more recent example, what drives Elon Musk’s pursuit of interplanetary space travel.


Without diminishing the criticisms offered by either Bogost or Lanier, Noble’s historical investigation into the roots of divinized or theologized technology reminds us that the roots of the disorder run much deeper than we might initially imagine. Noble’s own genealogy traces the origin of the religion of technology to the turn of the first millennium. It emerges out of a volatile mix of millenarian dreams, apocalyptic fervor, mechanical innovation, and monastic piety. Its evolution proceeds apace through the Renaissance, finding one of its most ardent prophets in the Elizabethan statesman and thinker Francis Bacon. Even through the Enlightenment, the religion of technology flourished. In fact, the Enlightenment may have been a decisive moment in the history of the religion of technology.

In his Atlantic essay, Bogost frames the emergence of techno-religious thinking as a departure from the ideals of reason and science associated with the Enlightenment. This is not altogether incidental to Bogost’s argument. When he talks about the “theological” thinking that suffuses our understanding of algorithms, Bogost is not working with a neutral, value-free, all-purpose definition of what constitutes the religious or the theological; there’s almost certainly no such definition available. Rather, he works (like Lanier and many others) with an Enlightenment understanding of Religion that characterizes it as Reason’s Other–as something a-rational if not altogether irrational, superstitious, authoritarian, and pernicious.

Noble’s work complicates this picture. The Enlightenment did not, as it turns out, vanquish Religion, driving it far from the pure realms of Science and Technology. In fact, to the degree that the radical Enlightenment’s assault on religious faith was successful, it empowered the religion of technology. To put it another way, the Enlightenment—and, yes, we are painting with broad strokes here—did not do away with the notions of Providence, Heaven, and Grace, but instead renamed them as, respectively, Progress, Utopia, and Technology. To borrow a phrase, the Enlightenment immanentized the eschaton. If heaven had been understood as a transcendent goal achieved with the aid of divine grace within the context of the providentially ordered unfolding of human history, it became a utopian vision, a heaven on earth, achieved by the ministrations science and technology within the context of progress, an inexorable force driving history toward its utopian consummation.

As historian Leo Marx has put it, the West’s “dominant belief system turned on the idea of technical innovation as a primary agent of progress.” Indeed, the further Western culture proceeded down the path of secularization as it is traditionally understood, the more emphasis was placed on technology as the principle agent of change. Marx observed that by the late nineteenth century, “the simple republican formula for generating progress by directing improved technical means to societal ends was imperceptibly transformed into a quite different technocratic commitment to improving ‘technology’ as the basis and the measure of—as all but constituting—the progress of society.”

When the prophets of the Singularity preach the gospel of transhumanism, they are not abandoning the Enlightenment heritage; they are simply embracing its fullest expression. As Bruno Latour has argued, modernity has never perfectly sustained the purity of the distinctions that were the self-declared hallmarks of its own superiority. Modernity characterized itself as a movement of secularization and differentiation, what Latour, with not a little irony, labels processes of purification. Science, politics, law, religion, ethics—these are all sharply distinguished and segregated from one another in the modern world, distinguishing it from the primitive pre-modern world. But it turns out that these spheres of human experience stubbornly resist the neat distinctions modernity sought to impose. Hybridization unfolds alongside purification, and Noble’s work has demonstrated how the lines between technology, sometimes reckoned the most coldly rational of human projects, and religion are anything but clear.

But not just any religion. Earlier I suggested that when Bogost characterizes our thinking about algorithms as “theological,” he is almost certainly assuming a particular kind of theology. This is why it is important to classify the religion of technology more precisely as a Christian heresy. It is in Western Christianity that Noble found the roots of the religion of technology, and it is in the context of post–Christian world that it currently flourishes.

It is Christian insofar as its aspirations are like those nurtured by the Christian faith, such as the conscious persistence of a soul after the death of the body. Noble cites Daniel Crevier, who, referring to the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” suggests that “religious beliefs, and particularly the belief in survival after death, are not incompatible with the idea that the mind emerges from physical phenomena.” This is noted on the way to explaining that a machine-based material support could be found for the mind, which leads Noble to quip, “Christ was resurrected in a new body; why not a machine?” Reporting on his study of the famed Santa Fe Institute in Los Alamos, anthropologist Stefan Helmreich writes, “Judeo-Christian stories of the creation and maintenance of the world haunted my informants’ discussions of why computers might be ‘worlds’ or ‘universes,’ …. a tradition that includes stories from the Old and New Testaments (stories of creation and salvation).”

However heretically it departs from traditional Christian teaching regarding the givenness of human nature, the moral dimensions of humanity’s brokenness, the gracious agency of God in the salvation of humanity, the religion of technology can be conceived as an imaginative account of how God might fulfill purposes that were initially revealed in incidental, pre-scientific garb. In other words, we might frame the religion of technology not so much as a Christian heresy, but rather as (post–)Christian fan-fiction, an elaborate imagining of how the hopes articulated by the Christian faith will materialize as a consequence of human ingenuity in the absence of divine action.

Near the end of The Religion of Technology, David Noble warns of the dangers posed by a blind faith in technology. “Lost in their essentially religious reveries,” he writes, “the technologists themselves have been blind to, or at least have displayed blithe disregard for, the harmful ends toward which their work has been directed.” Citing another historian of technology, Noble adds, “The religion of technology, in the end, ‘rests on extravagant hopes which are only meaningful in the context of transcendent belief in a religious God, hopes for a total salvation which technology cannot fulfill …. By striving for the impossible, [we] run the risk of destroying the good life that is possible.’ Put simply, the technological pursuit of salvation has become a threat to our survival.” I suspect that neither Bogost nor Lanier would disagree with Noble on this score.

This post originally appeared at The Frailest Thing.

Michael Sacasas is a doctoral candidate in the Texts and Technology program at the University of Central Florida. Follow him on Twitter @frailestthing. 

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The Public and Private, Once Again

Three surveillance cameras, Wikimedia Commons

Three surveillance cameras, Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a political fire that has been burning for a long time is turning into a firestorm. Recently, the British Prime Minister David Cameron has called for tech companies to provide government security services with encryption keys to ensure that government authorities may legally access an individual’s data when warranted. The concern, now publicly shared by President Obama, is that terrorists are using the new encryption technologies being developed by companies like Apple, Google, WhatsApp, and Snapchat, especially “end-to-end” encryption, which “makes it nearly impossible for anyone to read users’ messages—even the company itself.”

And so, as The Economist has recently stated in an editorial about the matter, we are confronted again with the age-old dilemma “liberty vs. security, once again,” or more precisely “privacy vs. security.”

There are a host of legal, technological, political, and, perhaps above all, economic issues at play here. I do not claim to know precisely how one balances liberty with security, let alone balancing liberty with the tech companies’ push for profit maximization or governments’ desire to save face in the wake of acts of terror. But I do think that the scales are already set to fall off—that is, that these debates are taking place against a background of assumptions about privacy that are themselves problematic.

In calling privacy a right, we tend to do more than assert the necessity for its legal protection. We tend to carry with our idea of the right to privacy the metaphor of private space, even private property. Privacy as that which is bounded, set off from that which is public. Hence we have our private life and our public life, our private opinion and our public statements, our private information and our public profile, etc. In this very common way of thinking about things, the private and the public are two distinct realms, and the right to privacy is the guarantee of a wall around our private realm.

The privacy vs. security dilemma is imbedded in this way of thinking: It has to do with when it is legitimately permissible for the government to break down the wall of privacy for the sake of security. It is a version of the broader dilemma of liberty within the quasi-utilitarian liberalism that underlies our assumptions about privacy. We are to be free, so long as we do not interfere with the freedom of others; but when we do so interfere, the state has the right to encroach on our freedom, indeed even on our privacy, in the name of preserving maximum freedom for the greatest number.

Indeed, in recent rebuttals by libertarians, some liberals, and the tech industry to the call by Cameron and Obama for preserving a “back door” option by which to access user data, we see the greatest good for the greatest number argument used on behalf of super-encryption: Back doors, Cameron’s critics argue, can and will be used by the bad guys (criminals, hackers, the Russians, the Chinese) as well as the good guys, and the damage done by the bad guys could well be catastrophic. As Harvard’s Margo Seltzer recently said in The Financial Times,

If bad guys who are breaking laws cannot use encryption, they will find another way. It is an arms race and if governments say you cannot do this, that means the good guys can’t and the bad guys can. End-to-end encryption is the way to go.

Protecting privacy as an inviolable right, more sophisticated arguments go, is not only consistent with liberal societies, but also the most effective means of security—even if it means terrorists can communicate with little fear of being detected. It’s often assumed here that an absolute right to privacy will neatly reconcile itself with, even produce, the greatest good for the greatest number (albeit, the privacy of one’s data from tech companies themselves is more penetrable).

I think the super-encryption efforts of tech companies are socially and politically problematic. I think they are the wrong solution addressing the wrong problem. But in arguing so I am not interested in hypothetical calculations of the greatest good for the greatest number. Rather, I simply want to start with the manifest relationship of the private to the public. How do things work with respect to the private and the public?

Rather than starting with the regnant bugaboo, terrorism, let’s think about political corruption. Do politicians have an absolute right to the privacy of their deliberations and communications about public matters? Does the Speaker of the House, or the President, have an absolute right to the full and permanent protection of behind-the-scenes communications about matters of public consequence? If Legislator A and Donor K used WhatsApp to work out a deal for campaign donations in exchange for sponsoring legislation in the House of Representatives, would we, as citizens, accept the records of those conversations as being forever and irredeemably private, such that we simply could not ever access them?

I suspect that most of us, once we stop to think about it, would not be too comfortable with this already real-life scenario. What if the messages concerned bribes, threats, or other forms of back room dealings? What if the President told the Speaker things that the latter was not authorized to know? What if the CEO of Company X was privy to the messages, too? Or what if the Speaker sent the President the CEO’s messages without the CEO’s knowledge? This is the stuff of scandal and corruption, and these are each instances where communications, though “private,” indeed have public importance. The public would have a right to know about them.

This is not because we are willing to “sacrifice” privacy for the integrity of our political system; it is not a version of “liberty vs. security, once again.” Rather this is because, even with the high premium we put on the right to privacy, we understand that the private stands in a flexible, dialectical, and dependent relationship with the public: When private acts have direct public consequences, they are not strictly private—they can be called to public account.

This is the case whether we are talking about political corruption or communication among persons who would commit acts of terror. More important, in calling private acts to public account, we are not breaking down the wall of privacy; rather, we are simply walking through the door from the private to the public the reverse way, so to speak. An exchange between the private and the public has already taken place. We are but re-tracing it.

What I find particularly troubling about the unbreachable encryption efforts of Apple, Google, and others is that they technologically (or, more properly, mathematically) prevent this kind of reverse traffic in the name of the public good. Rather in the name of “privacy”—and, let’s be honest, in the name of corporate profits—tech companies are creating, in effect, not so much inviolable walls around privacy but something more like trap doors from the private to the public that can be gone through only one way. In such a scenario, it is only the public that will suffer.

The genuine political worry articulated by super-encryption is that about Big Brother. As Wired writes of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum,

Growing up in Soviet Ukraine in the 1980s, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum learned to distrust the government and detest its surveillance. After he emigrated to the U.S. and created his ultra-popular messaging system decades later, he vowed that WhatsApp would never make eavesdropping easy for anyone. Now, WhatsApp is following through on that anti-snooping promise at an unprecedented scale.

But the United States and the United Kingdom are not the Soviet Union, and while both governments have participated aggressively in very troubling illegal, large-scale dragnet-like surveillance in the last decade, we have not seen a corresponding development of a police state working in tandem with the data collection agencies. To the contrary, the greatest problem faced by American and British citizens is that of government secrecy, which has provided cover for illegal and otherwise questionable state surveillance programs, together with the cultural problem seen in repeated demands from politicians that intelligence agencies unfailingly connect the dots prior to a terrorist attack, or be held culpable when they do not. This cultivates a culture of self-preservation in intelligence communities, encourages them to lean always to more aggressive actions rather than less aggressive ones, and opens the door to all sorts of government contractors promising infallible technological fixes for what are, in the end, inherently political and social crises.

Encryption processes that simply block government surveillance outright, in keeping with Silicon Valley’s longstanding delusion, are also but a supposed technological fix for what are political and cultural problems—be it the NSA or al-Qaeda and their affiliates. End-to-end encryption and its equivalents in no way address the real problems we face from a civil liberties perspective—government secrecy and the unrealistic expectations before counter-terrorism agencies. Worse, encryption offers a false substitute for real solutions—something that is the moral equivalent of vigilante force when what we need is better government and law.

Ned O’Gorman, associate professor of communication and Conrad Humanities Professorial Scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Spirits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy and the forthcoming The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America since the Kennedy Assassination.

Editor’s Note: Ned O’Gorman is also a contributor to The Hedgehog Review‘s Spring 2015 issue.  Reserve your copy today here.

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The Arts and Humanities Save Lives!

PrintThere was a time, long ago, when it was taken for granted that what we now call the “humanities” was integral not just to human enjoyment but to human survival.

It was self-evident that what the Greeks called logos—language and language-based reasoning—is not only what made the human animal different from all the other animal species of Earth, but that language was essential to the human capacity to survive, and thrive, in a too-often hostile and harsh environment. Rabbits have speed and agility; bears have teeth and claws; eagles have wings; humans have language. As one ancient Athenian put it:

For in the other powers which we possess we are in no respect superior to other living creatures; nay, we are inferior to many in swiftness and in strength and in other resources; but, because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other and to make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts; and, generally speaking, there is no institution devised by man which the power of speech has not helped us to establish. For this it is which has laid down laws concerning things just and unjust, and things base and honorable; and if it were not for these ordinances we should not be able to live with one another. It is by this also that we confute the bad and extol the good. (Isocrates, Nicocles, Antidosis 3.5–7)

Above all, logos was for the Greeks the source of wisdom, which was assumed to be essential to human survival. Similar ideas can also be found in ancient Hebraic, Confucian, Arab, and other cultures.

We have come a long way from this “naive” view. Ours, as the cliché goes, is a technological age, and science and engineering are now assumed to be the keys to human survival.

Recently, my own university’s chancellor, Phyllis Wise, reminded us of technology’s vast sway.   In a blog post featured on Linkedin, and now republished on the University of Illinois’s website, she argued that the United States needs to fix what she and her fellow scientists and engineers call the “innovation deficit”—the gap between current levels of federal funding of science and engineering and what the country needs “to remain the world’s innovation leader.”

Once we fix this “innovation deficit,” she said,  “we will be well on our way to solving some of the world’s biggest problems.” Scientists and engineers, she explained in a series of examples, would be able to heal diseases, clean up the environment, and, “ensure our national security” by providing new technologies to the Department of Defense. By designating “health and education,” “environment,” and “national security” as the three main areas to which science and engineering can substantially contribute, Chancellor Wise appealed to human life as the main benefactor of science and technology research.

Of course, not all technological innovations are lifesaving. As Chancellor Wise concluded, some things are about “quality of life” rather than survival:

Finally, there’s this: everything from plasma TVs to the first internet browser to YouTube to whipped cream in a can—these innovations can all be credited to a university (ours, in the case of these examples). And while these innovations may not be lifesaving, they certainly contribute to our quality of life. Add to these examples the vibrant scholarly work of our historians, artists, musicians, journalists, and others who work to enrich our understanding of the world and of other people in a powerful way, and it’s clear that federal funding for research is a critical part of modern life.

This seems all self-evident enough, but is it?

Professional hurt feelings aside, it is incorrect to categorize the arts and humanities as concerned with “quality of life” rather than—as Wise’s post clearly implies—the sustenance of human life. The value of “historians, artists, musicians, journalists, and others” is not equivalent to the invention of canned whipped cream!

Today the world’s biggest problems have indeed grown big enough to concern the very survival of the human species: environmental catastrophe, genocidal weapons, and fragile technological and economic systems each put the species—not just individuals—at risk. But the solutions to these problems, in as much as they can be achieved, will be essentially, and not merely accidentally, social and political in nature.

Consider a national problem before us now that very much concerns human life. Two weeks ago, after the grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, President Obama and many others came out arguing for a technological fix: cop cameras. With this technology, they argued, we could erase ambiguities and probabilities from the arbitration of police conduct and be able to know with more certainty the sequence of events in incidents like the slaying of Michael Brown. Meanwhile, police officers themselves would certainly feel the presence of these cameras and be compelled to exercise more restraint when interacting with the public.

If this were so, Chancellor Wise might be right: Science and technology could fix some of the world’s biggest problems.

But as we learned last week in another grand jury decision concerning the police killing of another black man—this time, Eric Garner of Staten Island—technology means very little in a culture of police impunity before people of color. Garner’s killing took place in the full view of a camera. The footage is widely available online and shows an unarmed man who posed no imminent threat to police or bystanders being put in a chokehold by a police officer and slowly suffocated. As Sean Davis at the Federalist writes, “The grand jury’s decision not to bring any charges against the officer who killed Garner is inexplicable. It defies reason. It makes no sense…. All we have to do is watch the video and believe our own eyes.”

Cameras, microchip sensors, drones: No matter what the gadget, there is no technological fix for racism, or for more subtle problems such as prosecutorial discretion. There is no science that can save us from the historically embedded habits and the wider structures that cause us, seemingly instinctively, to value the lives of some more than others based on the skin color, gender, or any other of a number of social markers of the Other. And the only solutions for structural problems within the law are both better law and better practice of the law.

These problems require citizens capable of reflecting on matters like discrimination and the law, and leaders who understand that the world’s problems can’t be fixed simply through technology. The world’s largest problems are not equivalent to the problem of gravity. If they were, perhaps science and technology could solve them. We’d just need more well-funded Newtons and Einsteins. Rather, we have problems that are inherently political and/or social in nature and that require political and/or social solutions. Moreover, it should be obvious by now that scientific and technological “fixes” often create new ones (e.g., industrialism’s creation of global warming, genocidal killing machines, and antibiotics).

So while it seems silly to say it, it needs to be said, in light of the legitimate value political and academic leaders are putting on life: The arts and humanities save lives!

If for the Greeks, logos was the means by which humans established cities, today it is the language, visual, plastic, and other arts that offer the sorts of practices and epistemologies capable of better reckoning with the world’s problems, whether they be the plight of racism (which keeps technologies from being put to just use), the situation of climate change (which requires above all political solutions for any technological fixes to be implemented), or the existence of economic inequality and poverty (which simply cannot be addressed adequately by any metric apart from good policy).

I am not claiming that the arts and humanities are salvific. There is no need for hyperbole here, no need for triumphalism. Rather, we need only to reckon with the world’s problems as they are to see that the arts and humanities, in as much as they equip us to do political and social work well, can save far more lives than any gizmo. If saving lives is our metric, the biggest deficit we face is not an “innovation deficit” but a “wisdom deficit.”

Nor is the issue here the “humanities” versus the “sciences,” but rather the obvious point that science and technology are good only in so far as they are used well, and that their good use is a matter of principle and prudence, not causality and efficiency.

Our greatest problems are social and political problems. They call for social and political solutions. The arts and humanities train us in the sort of skills and sagacity integral to social and political solutions. The arts and humanities save lives!

Chancellor Wise and other leaders of the academy-in-crisis, in addition to the “innovation deficit,” would you consider solutions to the “wisdom deficit” we now face?

Ned O’Gorman, associate professor of communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is the author of Spirits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy and the forthcoming The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America since the Kennedy Assassination.

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The Chokehold That Is Prosecutorial Discretion

A protest in Grand Central Station in New York after the grand jury’s verdict in the Eric Garner case.

The news yesterday that a second grand jury in two weeks had failed to indict a white police officer for causing the death of an unarmed black man has caused an understandable uproar.  Where should we focus the outrage in a justice system that is failing minorities? Let me suggest one candidate: prosecutorial discretion.

As an assistant federal public defender, I am used to experiencing the fruits of a system designed around the whims of the prosecution. First, what is prosecutorial discretion?  Plenty of literature gives content to this phrase, but it boils down to the idea that a prosecutor can do whatever a prosecutor wants to do, as evidenced by the fact that 97% of all cases in federal court result in guilty pleas prior to, and instead of, a jury trial. The majority of these settlements are the result of plea agreements where the prosecutor, not a judge, decides what charges a defendant should be convicted of, whether or not to require a plea to factors that trigger statutory mandatory minimum sentences, and often sentencing ranges with no input from the judicial branch, let alone a jury of a defendant’s peers. The arcane cruelty of federal criminal laws, particularly in the area of drugs and guns, means that penalties are so severe that most defendants have little choice but to plead guilty. Severe sentencing and over-criminalization combine to make a dangerous cocktail where almost everything is a crime, or multiple crimes.

So what does this have to do with Ferguson?  And now the Staten Island chokehold case?  Without question, the decision of these two grand juries not to indict was because the prosecutors, in their discretion, did not want to indict. As has been detailed elsewhere, when a prosecutor wants an indictment, a prosecutor usually gets an indictment. The fact that both of these grand jury presentments took place over months (instead of hours as is the norm), and involved testimony on behalf of the officers (each police officer testified on his own behalf, again, not the norm) shows just how unique these cases were. And just how little the prosecutors must have wanted to indict.

And why might these prosecutors not have wanted these grand juries to return indictments?  The reason may be legitimate doubts over the culpability of the officers under the laws of excessive force as written. Or because prosecutors have to rely on law enforcement officers every day to investigate cases and make out those cases in court, and, thus, were loath to alienate their usual allies. But we may never know, and we have no right to know under the law.

Prosecutors make decisions not to indict all the time and the only person who might even know about it is the victim, or alleged victim, of some criminal action. No one has a right to prosecution. The recent conversations regarding unprosecuted collegiate sexual assault sparked in part by the controversial Rolling Stone article about my alma mater, the University of Virginia, implicate this fundamental fact. Every victim stands at the whim of the prosecutor to determine whether or not a case even starts down the path of seeking justice from a criminal court.

Bill Stuntz, former Harvard Law professor, described our current system and its disproportionate effects on black Americans well in The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (Harvard, 2011):

As unenforced speed limits delegate power to state troopers patrolling the highways, so too American criminal law delegates power to the prosecutors who enforce it. That discretionary power is exercised differently in poor city neighborhoods than in wealthier urban and suburban communities. Far from hindering such discrimination, current law makes discriminating easy. That sad conclusion has its roots in a sad portion of America’s legal history. When the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the “equal protection of the laws” was enacted, one of its chief goals was to ensure that criminal law meant one law alike for blacks and whites—that both ex-slaves and ex-slaveowners would be held to the same legal standards, and that crime victims among both groups received roughly the same measure of legal protection. That understanding of equal protection did not survive Reconstruction’s collapse. Today, the equal protection guarantee is all but meaningless when applied to criminal law enforcement, one reason why both drug enforcement and enforcement of laws banning violent felonies are so different in black communities than in white ones.

The Ferguson and Staten Island cases may be targets of our outrage for many reasons, but one should certainly be that prosecutorial discretion has been exposed for what it is—entirely out of our hands.

Lisa Lorish is an assistant federal public defender in the Western District of Virginia and a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law.

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Universitybot Responds: Gang Rape as “Sexual Misconduct”

University of Virginia, 11/20/14

Above and below: Fresh graffiti at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, University of Virginia, November 20, 2014. Photos: Gregory Thompson

Last week I wrote a post titled “Who Needs Captains of Erudition?” Long before “corporatization” had become synonymous with higher education, Thorstein Veblen, the early twentieth-century American sociologist, dismissed American universities as little more than “competitive businesses.” These enterprises were run by university presidents, who had become little more than managers of systems, chiefs of concerns, “captains of erudition.”

When I read President Sullivan’s response to a Rolling Stone article that recounted a University of Virginia woman’s personal story of gang rape and the trauma that followed, all I could hear was the defensive, disengaged chatter of one of Veblen’s captains:

“I am writing in response to a Rolling Stone magazine article that negatively depicts the University of Virginia and its handling of sexual misconduct cases.”

“Negatively depicts”? If one phrase embodies the corporatization of the university that might well be it. The contemporary university’s assessment metrics, use of adjunct labor, obsession with economic efficiency, and capitulation to the sovereignty of the student as consumer are just consequences of a deeper failure of moral imagination. The primary concern is with public perceptions. Never mind that a young woman felt that her only option was to talk to a Rolling Stone reporter. This is the language of an institution committed to nothing but its own mechanisms. There is no evidence of the virtues to which we here at the University of Virginia lay claim—empathy, civic concern, leadership, and curiosity.

University of Virginia, 11/20/14

Sullivan’s statement was a missive from the bureaucratic bowels of an accounting machine. It was surely manufactured by public relations specialists and lawyers whose interests are simply fiduciary, concerned only with legal liability and fundraising. There are no people, just “interests”; no judgments, just “initiatives”; no moral failures, just “issues.” There were, as one of my colleagues put it, no rapes, no victims, no women, no perpetrators—just “issues related to sexual misconduct.” And the only response is more policies, more initiatives, more accounting.

The captains of erudition are firmly at the helm at the modern American university. With their phalanx of managers, they are guiding us into seas of indistinction, into a future where the university is just another modern bureaucracy without ends, without purpose. And the faculty is asleep on the deck.

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