Automation Otherwise: A Review of Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks

My review of Virginia Eubanks’ book Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor was published on the EPIC Blog in February 2019. You can read the full piece here. Below is the introduction of the review.

As I sat down in to write this review of Virginia Eubanks’ latest book, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, I couldn’t help but consider it in light of the growing restiveness among tech workers in response to their companies’ perceived ethical lapses. Rank and file employees have begun to speak out against the use of big data-driven software systems and infrastructure for ethically questionable ends like warfare, policing, and family separation at the United States-Mexico border. To date, these protests have mired several public-private contracts between government agencies and some of the world’s biggest tech companies in controversy, including Google’s Project Maven, a collaboration with the Pentagon to target drone strikes; Microsoft’s Azure, a cloud infrastructure for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target protesters of family and child detention; and Amazon’s surveillance system Rekognition, sold to Florida police departments to track suspected and potential criminals in public spaces. 

Against this background, Automating Inequality is an urgently needed account of the ethical risks of automated, data-driven decision making. This book focuses on its impact on the most vulnerable people in our societies, but these cases should also be understood as bellwethers for how automation is becoming integrated into the lives of everyone in the United States. 

Automating Inequality raises serious questions about what is to become of human agency in a digitally automated world. It provides timely case studies for tech workers, policy makers, and anyone seeking to understand the social impacts of computing technologies and reevaluate the ethical frameworks that structure digital innovation and, ultimately, the changing landscape in which all of us access resources, care for each other, and build our lives. 

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