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Review of Virginia Eubanks (2018). Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor.: New York: St. Martin’s Press. 272 pp. ISBN 9781250074317 (Hardcover)

Authors:
REVIEWS
Review of Virginia Eubanks (2018). Automating
Inequality:How High-Tech Tools Profile,Police,
and Punish the Poor.
New York: St. Martins Press. 272 pp. ISBN 9781250074317
(Hardcover)
Julia Mañero
1
#Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019
Keywords Algorithmic cultures .Automatization .High-tech .Inequality.Postdigital .
Poverty
They tell us that big data shakes up hidebound bureaucracies, stimulates innova-
tive solutions, and increases transparency. But when we focus on programs
specifically targeted at poor and working-class people, the new regime of data
analytics is more evolution than revolution. (Eubanks 2018:36)
Technologies and algorithms are part and parcel of the postdigital society. Pointing
towards difficulties in separation between digital and analog spheres, postdigital
approach describes a blurred environment where our fascination with digital
technologies belongs to the past (Cramer 2015), and where digital systems and
tools have become invisible (Cormier et al. 2019). Contemporary humans do not
only coexist with sophisticated machines; more importantly, these machines also
attain increasing power over human actions. Examples include technological
opportunities for disruption of traditional political economy of production and
distribution of academic knowledge (Jandrićand Hayes 2019), and technological
potentials for democratization and disruption of education using tools such as
massive open online courses (Littlejohn and Hood 2018). In its nuanced descrip-
tions of complex and messy relationships between human beings and technologies
(Jandrićet al. 2018), the postdigital perspective offers a suitable theoretical framework for
analyzing their changing power relationships.
https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-019-00077-4
*Julia Mañero
julmancon@gmail.com
1
University of Sevilla, Sevilla, Spain
Postdigital Science and Education (2020) 2:489493
Published online: 9 November 2019
In Automating Inequality:How High-Tech Tools Profile,Police,and Punish the Poor,
Virginia Eubanks (2018) asserts that these power relationships indicateoften in a
disguised waya rise of dependence on digital tools and gadgets. The postdigital
condition reinforces this tendency, because our social relationships are dialectically
intertwined with the digital cultures that surround us (Escaño 2019).AccordingtoKnox
(2015) digital cultures have evolved from cybercultures to algorithmic cultures through an
intermediate phase of community cultures. In Automating Inequality Eubanks (2018)
refers predominantly to the current phase of algorithmic cultures, where high-tech pro-
motes automated decision-making and exacerbates inequalities and privileges. Eubanks
shows that algorithmic computer operations have been introduced as neutral facilitators.
Viewed as tools that make great disruptive changes by themselves, technologies are
presented as fair instruments designed to democratize communication, education, and
participation in the public sphere. Following such logic, media literacy has become
instrumentalized and focused almost exclusively on the acquisition of skills required for
taking part in the digital world (Emejulu and McGregor 2016). The absence of critical
consciousness about the nature of algorithmic cultures is noted by critical authors who
claim the need for a postdigital critical media pedagogy that reflects on the political and
philosophical discourses hidden in technological tools (Emejulu and McGregor 2016;
Jandrić2017;Jandrićet al. 2018). In support of this narrative, critical media literacy and
critical data literacy are highly required in our postdigital age (Jandrić2019).
Automating Inequality:How High-Tech Tools Profile,Police,and Punish the Poor
(Eubanks 2018) offers a fascinating glimpse into ways that political and philosophical
background of digital technologies supports new forms of society of controlwhere
technologies are designed to observe, track, monitor and tag (see Jandrić2017). In
developed countries such as the USA, which suffer from unprecedented social inequal-
ity and withdrawal of the middle class (Chomsky 2017), important decisions in health
and social assistance services are increasingly made by algorithmic entities. While
humankind embraces digital technologies, technology develops into a new independent
stage; high levels of automation bring about a situation in which even designers of
these technologies cannot predict their behavior! (Jandrić2019). In Automating In-
equality, Eubanks does not merely describe how automatization and lack of human
control affect the working class and the poor. More importantly, she uses her own
experience to bring together different, meticulously researched stories, which describe
the core of impact of these technologies on poor and working-class people in America.
This exploration of real personal stories enriches the book and brings it close to
potential readers.
Throughout the three chapters of the book, Eubanks explores welfare
decision-making technology in Indiana, homeless service in Los Angeles, and
child protection algorithm in Pennsylvania. This approach provides the oppor-
tunity to acknowledge tensions between technologies and inequalities they
promote during decision-making processes. When technologies reinforce in-
equalities, they are no longer neutral, and Eubanks vividly describes how
automated decision-making systems punish the poor and middle-class through
persuasive mechanisms of control. Eubanksresearch starts in 2014. In a simple
and colloquial style, she begins by narrating a personal experience and slowly
introduces other protagonists. Through these stories, Eubanks shows how a few
missing digits can determine peoples future. Therefore, she concludes, it is
Postdigital Science and Education (2020) 2:489493
490
necessary to reflect and promote discourses about how the most vulnerable
sectors of the population face these random failures of the technological
system’—a system to which we are increasingly ceding both power and greater
responsibility (Eubanks 2018). Each chapter is illustrated with heartbreaking
stories, offering a stunningly detailed study from various perspectives including
patients, case workers, activists, police officers, journalists, and other stake-
holders. Through these stories, the book empowers the reader and places a
wager for a fair and socially committed use of technology.
According to Eubanks, digital scrutiny is merely the last stage in the history of the
punishment of the poor. Since the nineteenth century, the aim to regulate poverty has
set into motion powerful mechanisms of observation and manipulation. In the predigital
age, decisions about housing and welfare were supported by human beings. Based on a
combination of objective and subjective perspectives, this approach served as an
exercise in liberating decision-makersconscience and social responsibility in the face
of stark inequalities. Building on this historical overview, Eubanks shows that intro-
ducing high-tech tools in these processes has continued to disempower poor and
working-class people, denying their human rights, and violating their autonomy
(Eubanks 2018). Poorhouses have given way to scientific charities, which will later
evolve into digital poorhouses. Based on this historical overview, Eubanks explains
how computers, presented as neutral tools for optimization of public spending, have
ended up being used as surveillance tools and private data collectors. Used within
opaque algorithms, then, this data ends up determining individual human rights! At this
point of the book readers become more aware of dire implications from transferring
ones personal data: the system equates poverty and homelessness with criminality. In a
passive and socially accepted way, the poor are criminalized and discriminated against,
thus legitimizing the status quo. Policies that benefit only a very small sector of the
population have been increasingly applied by those whom Adam Smith called the
masters of humanity. There is, however, a general lack of popular reaction against
these trends (Chomsky 2017).
Digital tools convince us that the neediest people are getting help based on param-
eters and information that are collected in well-stablished systems. Look the other way,
do not get involved, and everything will be finepoverty is under control. Controver-
sially, however, these digital and high-capacity systems do not accept doubts, errors, or
exceptions. Paradoxically, if the algorithmic sequence fails, a person may lose their
healthcare or drop a list to get a home. Therefore, we need a critical postdigital
perspective to understand ways in which algorithms transcend digital boundaries.
Automating Inequality:How High-Tech Tools Profile,Police,and Punish the Poor
(Eubanks 2018) is an important read for citizens concerned about relationships between
social justice and high-tech, and the impacts of these relationships to our postdigital
world. Targeting some of the most vulnerable sectors of population, technological
policies cross borders which should not be crossed (such as human rights). The
problem is much deeper than (data) surveillance and (often false) algorithmic predic-
tion. Deprived of resources and paralyzed by fear, victims of this politico-technological
system are helpless. Amid this horror stories, Eubanks identifies an opportunity to
realize the necessary social commitment of all and for all. In her words: cultural denial
is the process that allows us to know about cruelty, discrimination, and repression, but
never openly acknowledge it. It is how we come to know what not to know(Eubanks
Postdigital Science and Education (2020) 2:489493 491
2018: 144). The digital poorhouse is hard to understand, massively scalable, and
persistentyet we all live in it. Technologies of the past had been structuring the
world in visible, physical ways, but this latest bout of postdigital algorithmic
restructuring is simultaneously material, non-material, and opaque (Hayes 2019).
Digital technologies create master narratives of today (Fuller and Jandrić2019). These
master narratives are part and parcel of the so-called cybernetic capitalism(Peters and
Jandrić2018), and can be counterbalanced only using postdigital approaches (Jandrić
et al. 2018; Cormier et al. 2019). Arguably the first step in dismantling the digital
poorhouse could be to change ways in which we refer to poverty. Poverty, and its
different meanings as illiteracy, is a form of repression, a mode of domination, and a
form of capitalist production (Peters et al. 2018). Once we recognize the postdigital
nature of our own involvement, it becomes possible to start developing a critical
perspective for potential change, starting with reconsideration of technological systems
and their applications. Automating Inequality:How High-Tech Tools Profile,Police,
and Punish the Poor (Eubanks 2018) may serve as a necessary turning point within the
reach of any reader who wants to get out of their comfort zone and take an active role in
social inequalities. Such postdigital approach may not be comfortable (Cormier et al.
2019), yet it is a necessary philosophical approach for anyone committed to equality,
social justice, and emancipation.
References
Chomsky, N. (2017). Requien for the American dream: the 10 principles of concentration of wealth & power.
New York: Seven Stories Press.
Comier, D., Jandrić, P., Childs, M., Hall, R., White, D., Phipps, L., Truelove, Ian., Hayes, S., & Fawns, T.
(2019). Ten years of the postdigital in the 52group: reflections and developments 20092019. Postdigital
Science and Education, 1(2), 475506. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-019-00049-8
Cramer, F. (2015). What is post-digital?InPostdigital aesthetics: art, computation and design (pp. 1226).
New York: Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137437204_2.
Emejulu, A., & McGregor, C. (2016). Towards a radical digital citizenship in digital education. Critical
Studies in Education, 6 0(1), 117. https://doi.org/10.1080/17508487.2016.1234494.
Escaño, C. (2019). Sociedad postdigital (ontología de la remezcla). Iberoamérica Social: Revista-Red de
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Eubanks, V. (2018). Automating inequality. How high-tech tools profile, police, and punish the poor.New
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Fuller, S., & Jandrić, P. (2019). The postdigital human: making the history of the future. Postdigital Science
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Hayes, S. (2019). No false promises. Postdigital Science and Education 1(1), 47. https://doi.org/10.1007
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Jandrić,P.(2017).Learning in the age of digital reason. Rotterdam: Sense.
Jandrić, P. (2019). The postdigital challenge of critical media literacy. The International Journal of Critical
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/00131857.2018.1454000.
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