Coded Bias

Coded Bias is one of those shit-yourself-with-fear documentaries. It’s about the propagation of artificial intelligence algorithms and facial recognition technology in a million unseen ways throughout our society right now, and how the racist and sexist biases existent in our societies are being replicated and compounded by those technologies.

Almost nothing in the documentary is about future technology. It is about what is happening right now, and in some cases, has been happening for years under our noses. Things we have a vague sense of, without feeling like there’s any explicit intrusion, have been designed with exactly that effect in mind. To become ubiquitous, convenient, and unseen, while holding a massive amount of power, to be sold to the highest bidder or the state.

First things first, facial recognition technology. The artificial intelligence that recognises what a face is, and whether it matches another face, is only as good as the data set it learns from. And unsurprisingly the white men who created the code to sell to the white men who’d buy the software, mostly entered white men into the data set. Women and people of colour were widely underrepresented, and thus the software failed to recognise them, or correctly match their faces a disproportionate amount of the time. Oh, and gender minorities? Those don’t exist. You are either a woman or man, light-skinned or dark-skinned. The cissexist, mono-genderist model erases trans non-binary folks entirely.

So what does that mean if facial recognition technology doesn’t work on you? Well, for one you are going to be massively more likely to be mismatched, possibly by police looking for wanted criminals, possibly by airport security looking for no-fly-list terror suspects. In short, harassment happening wholesale against populations of people of colour will now be automated, built into the codes that control our lives, and depicted as the neutral, infallible judgement of an emotionally-detached system.

And it’s not simply the lack of diversity in data sets. If you have a program that is designed to replicate what is already there, it will replicate all the injustices that are already there. A company that hires mainly white men finds that the AI that sorts through the CVs at HR is excluding almost all women and people of colour. Why? Because it is designed to find matches that replicate the existing outcome. So a computer program meant to take human partiality out of the equation finds it only entrenches prejudice.

And there is no accountability for this technology. Because the artificial intelligence is designed to learn on its own, beyond its original programming, sometimes its own developers don’t know how exactly it is making its calculations and judgements.

So gone are the days you could boycott a bus company for not hiring ‘coloured’ workers. Gone are the days you could protest a sheriff’s department for its discriminatory policing. In the current era of civil rights, neither the bus company nor the sheriff’s office will have any control over who is selected for hire or frisking, it will be determined by an algorithm designed by an entirely different company, maybe one that isn’t even in the country, and even they themselves won’t full understand why it’s happening.

Scary, no?

So how do you resist? Luckily this documentary gives us a number of activists and human rights groups to root for. Predominantly led by women of colour, the charge is driving for more regulation of this technology, of raising awareness of its prevalence, and ways to undermine its usage. The film follows Big Brother Watch and Algorithmic Justice League as they try to make legal challenges against the unregulated use of untested software on powerless, poor, and predominantly black communities. The fight for equality, privacy, and human rights goes on, now in new technological frontiers.

If you like this …

The Last Ice

The Last Ice is a documentary about the Inuit people of the Pikialsasorsuaq region of the Arctic, a place that straddles Canada and Greenland. They fight to protect their communities and way of life against climate change and those who would profit from its effects.

The most important thing to take away from this film is that colonisation is not a process that happened hundreds of years ago, but an ongoing process that is happening today. Community activist Maatalii Okalik talks about how her grandparents were the first generation to have their way of life disrupted by white intrusion, and we speak to a woman my mother’s age who tells us her generation were the first generation to be removed from their land for forced schooling in abusive, deculturating institutions. This is a process that started within living memory.

And it is not over. As massive companies profit from the practices that cause climate change, they also then exploit its results. The ice is melting between Canada and Greenland. A once cohesive Inuit culture with shared language and interrelationships is being separated by a border not of their own making. And this border of melted sea water, which to them represents the loss of land, of ecosystems, of food, and of travel paths, represent to others an opportunity for quicker trade routes, for oil extraction, for industrial-scale environmentally-damaging fishing. As these tentative new rivulets appear in the ice, they send through icebreakers, to smash open the remaining ice, to cut time off their journeys, and increase their profit margins.

The destruction of the Inuit’s land is not a process that stopped. You see footage of mining companies dynamiting the snow in the 1950s, and you see mining companies doing the exact same thing today. There is an ongoing state of violence against Inuit culture and the systems necessary to sustain Inuit life.

The source of hope opposing this horror is the Inuit people themselves. Especially the young people, many of whom have grown up as Inuit minorities in European-Canadian communities, and are returning home to Inuit land and Inuit ways. While many countries are facing an aging population, Inuit population is predominantly young and booming. And they bring with them a fierce love for their culture, and determination to defend their land. They have first-hand experience of growing up without it, and are resolved to reverse that loss.

Easier said than done. Because even as important knowledge and hunting techniques are being passed down from the older to the younger generation, the landscape on which they were founded is changing. Timeless patterns of animal migration is altering as ice shelves simply disappear.

So this story becomes about the forces of international profit descending on the home of people whose survival is diametrically opposed to their aims. But this generation of Inuit people have years of practice of surviving attempts at their destruction, and they will use every means to protect what remains to them. And even if parliamentary resolutions fail, even if trade negotiations fail, they will still remain. Keeping their culture alive in their bodies, to be reborn again. Whatever happens, they will last.

A Voice Above Nature

A Voice Above Nature is a short film being shown as part of the Take One Action Film Festival. It explains the issue of oceanic noise pollution by expressing whale song and dolphin echolocation visually, filming in black and white the vibrations of water. And then it introduces man-made oceanic noise such as ship engines to show how the prevalence of this has come to blind sea creatures. Content warning, there are images of beached whales in this. The shocking thing is that oceanic noise pollution could be cleared with a mere 18 hour cessation of human activity in the oceans. Something that small, would take less than a day. But the welfare of others will always be matched against the money to be made. Our problems are not unsolvable, just not profitable to solve.

If you like this…

Pier Kids

Pier Kids is a documentary about the queer kids of colour whose only real home, place of safety, place of acceptance, is the Christopher Street Pier. Instantly that places it in the same lineage of films as Paris Is Burning and Kiki, which does 2 things: It shows up the progress with this film being stories about queer people of colour being made by queer people of colour, and it shows up how little progress is being made in the bread and butter experience of the lives of people facing multiple layers of oppression and hostility.

Pier Kids deliberately shies away from focusing on the pageantry and spectacle within black queer culture, not because it in any way denies the creativity and joy of the community, but because that is what everyone wants to stand and take a picture in front of. You will see white people down at the pier, marching on Pride day. You won’t see them there at 3am on a Tuesday night when all the homeless kids are trying to stay warm.

This film is less about that, and more about the day-to-day reality of what it’s like to be homeless as a teen, or what it’s like to engage in sex work in order to feed yourself. How do you spend your days, where do you go? Practicalities of how to steal food, and how to market yourself as a non-passing trans girl in different porn categories.

I feel that to some degree, there is an attempt in Pier Kids to defetishise queer culture, which seems to be so marketable, and humanise queer people, which seems to draw decidedly less attention and money. One guy wonders aloud whether or not he should try to get HIV, because there are programs to house HIV positive people, and it might help get him off the streets. As appalling as that is to hear, the film makes you understand how that is not a crazy idea, how the dangers of surviving on the streets mean that contracting a treatable, but still incredibly serious, condition might actually be the safer option. And these should not be your only options. Without ever having to state it explicitly, the entire film speaks as a plea that we value the lives of these young people, that we give them better options.

It is amazing that this film, while focusing on the hard realities people face, never feels grim. The situation these kids are in is not an invitation for pity and hand-wringing, but a stated fact of injustice, which the viewer is invited to confront. The young people themselves rise to their life’s challenges, the film highlighting their creativity and agency in developing strategies for survival. It shows the support, love and acceptance they show each other in a world where their existence is rejected.

To some extent, you can’t help coming away from this movie with anger, which is right. Watching cops hassle a woman out with her kid sleeping in a pram at night, because cops never bring solutions, only trouble, and they can’t conceive that a black woman out late at night with a kid might not be doing it because she’s just an inherently bad mother, but because she’s homeless and it might be safer for them to keep moving during the nighttime. Vans of dozens of white cops show up to arrest two teenage kids for play-fighting and rassling in the street. Congrats, criminal record for having a go at your pal. Cops hassling a deaf black guy during the Parade. It makes you wonder if anything has changed since Stonewall. This movie could be about Marsha and Sylvia hooking to keep a roof over their head half a century ago. Somehow queer people of colour kicked off a movement that seems to only have benefitted white cis folk. And when there’s a rainbow sticker slapped on everything, and queer culture can be marketed for prime time tv, trans and gay kids of colour will still be sleeping on the Christopher Street Pier, thinking of ways to survive their next 24 hours.