Review: Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor by Virginia Eubanks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The supposed quest to create more efficient systems within government programs through automation and algorithms--particularly those that focus on social welfare--is not so much a cost-saving, efficient, and effective approach to caring for society's most vulnerable but rather a means of making the process harder, more-complicated, and near-impossible to challenge for those who suffer from the many bugs (or features as the case may be) of the technologies being used. Starting first with a look at the rise of poorhouses and the ways in which the poor have been penalized and punished in US history, Eubanks then moves into looking at the introduction of more technological solutions that are often purported to improve services, save money, and reduce fraud and abuse. So often, as Eubanks shows in case after case, the reduction in fraud and abuse more or less comes at the cost of many more people being accused of fraud and abuse (false positives) that come to have many long-term ramifications, including destroying progress in people's lives or limiting their ability to get future help when needed. As she emphasizes, the many different tools used to police the poor in many ways perpetuate their status and keep them from escaping poverty. The introduction of algorithms and programs that in many ways perpetuate negative stereotypes about the poor, only exacerbate it. What I found most powerful about Eubanks works was the ways in which she helps the reader understand how the technology continues to appear neutral but that the assumptions of the programmers and the ease with which technology moves from a "recommendation" to double-check a potential problem to "evidence" of a problem creates a system that produces bias just by the mere process of producing data and reports on that data. The best example of this is the ways in which in many systems, reports of abuse (real or otherwise) increase the chances in which future reports of abuse are deemed more serious--even though, the reporting mechanism might be entirely arbitrary. Anyone interested in social justice, social work, or understanding how being poor subjects one to increasing criminalization should check this book out.

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