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Automating Inequality

A book: “Automating Inequality” by Virginia Eubanks. Some notes…

The book is a remarkably specific, in-the-trenches look at the role that automation is having in our country, how despite its patina of objectivity, the technology is contributing to a new kind of growth of inequality in American society. 

The argument is based on three case studies: (1) an Indiana project to automate the determination of eligibility for social services, (2) a Los Angeles system to categorize the homeless and provide relief, and (3) an Allegheny County Pennsylvania system to algorithmically assess the risk of child neglect and abuse.

The narrative of these case studies weaves together stories of specific people with more general historical and policy observations. It is an effective way to make the big points without losing the audience. Sadly, losing me as the audience is a real risk. I was able to make is all the way thru the book — a testament to the effectiveness of its narrative perhaps, or maybe a sad exception on my powers of concentration.

There is a chapter that reflects on the nature of what the author calls the “digital poorhouse” that is perhaps the biggest take-away for me. Her summary goes something like this…

(1) At root, Americans believe in three things: liberty, equity, and inclusion. (2) Liberty can be thought of in two ways: freedom-from and freedom-to, and the digital poorhouse diminishes both. (3) Equity can be thought of in two ways: equal treatment and equal value, and the digital poorhouse diminishes both. (4) Inclusion can be thought of in two ways: assimilation into the broader culture and integration of our whole selves, and the digital poorhouse diminishes both. I really like this analytical framework, although I might argue with the author’s premise that these are in fact the core values Americans hold (even granting that they might be implicitly held), but that’s not a useful argument to launch into, here.

The concluding chapter addresses how we might “dismantle” the digital poorhouse. I haven’t read it, yet.

Ok, so that means that I have not yet finished the book, and so my lame powers of concentration might yet catch up with me. Wish me luck.