Affordances: Science Fiction About Algorithmic Bias and Technological Resistance

Future Tense Fiction, a joint project of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination and Slate, has just published Affordances, a new science fiction story by EFF Special Advisor Cory Doctorow. It's a tale of algorithmic bias, facial recognition, and technological self-determination that touches on many of EFF’s key fights.

"Affordances" is a series of vignettes whose protagonists have steadily increasing degrees of privilege and power—first a literally nameless refugee child, then an activist documentarian on the US-Mexican border, then an African-American cop in Miami, and finally a tech executive running a giant facial recognition company—that show how each of them is caged in by automated tools that strip them of their self-determination and the chance for justice.

But the story isn't a counsel of despair: it revolves around an act of high-tech civil resistance that uses technology to rebalance the abusive potential of rival technologies.

The systems that the characters in "Affordances" struggle with are a cross-section of the issues EFF fights over, from facial recognition to copyright filters to street level surveillance and electronic mass surveillance.

The story is accompanied by a critical essay from the afrofuturist artist Nettrice Gaskins, who relates the "Affordances" characters’ actions to popular resistance in Hong Kong and around the world.

Ultimately, "Affordances" is a story about how the worst, most oppressive technologies might start off being wielded against poor and powerless people, but over time, the normalization of these technologies means that everyone— even powerful CEOs—can end up a prisoner of automated systems. That's why pluralistic technological self-determination is so important, no matter who you are and how much privilege you have. We're all living in the same networked world, and it will all be so great...if we don't screw it up.


Tuesday 5th November 2019 7:17 am

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