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

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  980 ratings  ·  144 reviews

Naomi Klein: "This book is downright scary."

Ethan Zuckerman, MIT: "Should be required reading."

Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body: "A must-read for everyone concerned about modern tools of inequality in America."

Astra Taylor, author of The People's Platform: "This is the single most important book about technology you will read this year."

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Kindle Edition, 265 pages
Published January 23rd 2018 by St. Martin's Press
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Will Byrnes
If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be … For the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ - (Deuteronomy
Mar 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As I’m getting older, I’m finding right-wing nastiness increasingly hard to take. You know, in a week when the consequences of the endless rhetoric of the right-wing hate machine were told upon the bodies of 50 Muslims in New Zealand, I’m hoping that just maybe the hate filled will no longer get away with the demonization of an entire religion (that is, nearly a quarter of the world’s population) as if this was somehow okay.

This book shows that right-wing nasty bastards not only hate people who
Joseph Spuckler
Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor by Virginia Eubanks is a report on the use of technology in determining government assistance programs.Eubanks is the co-founder of Our Knowledge, Our Power (OKOP), a grassroots anti-poverty and welfare rights organization, and is Associate Professor in the Department of Women's Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY.

Public assistance programs are seen as a drag on the economy to many people. People work hard for
Mar 27, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Dynamite subject! How big data impacts, and is impacted by, the way we serve the poor is a topic that is under-addressed, increasingly important, and poorly understood. However, I struggled through this book due to redundancy, more telling than showing, and a too-often tenuous connection between the (worthwhile) arguments advanced and the examples put forward. Oh well.
Policing is broader than law enforcement: it includes all the process by which we maintain order, regulate lives, and press young people into boxes so they will fit our unjust society

These processes are the algorithms and meaningless indexes that are automating public assistance delivery in the US. With three case studies: the automation of Indiana's welfare eligibility, an index that decides which homeless person deserves the LA's attention and predictive tool for child protection services to
Peter Mcloughlin
Digital technology which could help the strengthen the social safety net is used as a surveillance net to monitor, regulate, and scrutinize the poor who come in its gaze. It is not the technology that is the problem so much as the values of the administrators and politicians who weld it. They make algorithms to exclude funds and drive down costs and punish the poor. It goes back to the American attitude towards poverty as an aberration from the norm and a moral failing of the individual instead ...more
Jun 17, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I really wanted to like this book, and was hoping that it would be similar to some talks I've been to lately on unconscious bias in algorithms in the public sector, or using variables (like if your family is in jail) that are basically just a proxy for race. Sadly, it wasn't. The author looks at three different instances of automation in the public sector, and in each continues to point out how evil "technology" is and that she wishes that we could go back to social workers pulling favors for ...more
I have never read anything more relevant to my career and work. brb, recommending to literally everyone
David Wineberg
Jan 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Target, track, punish. Repeat.

Notwithstanding what the French wrote on the Statue of Liberty, America hates its poor. It will spend billions to deny them help. In Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks says we manage the poor so we don’t have to eradicate poverty. Instead, we have developed a Digital Poorhouse – high tech containment of the poor and recording of their every action, association and activity. The great innovation today is the prediction model, using the child, the parents,
Willy Marz Thiessam
Virginia Eubanks has done all of us a favor, and we should really appreciate how difficult this must have been. She looks at a large stretch of American history, in how it treats its poor and oppressed minority groups and uses technology to do so. This is not an easy or pleasant thing to come to grips with, but Ms. Eubanks does it with this very readable and succinct volume. She leaves nothing out and brings us to an overall understanding of what has occurred and the general direction.

This is one of those "what is to be done" books that winds up making me think "I hope I get hit by a car before shit gets worse."

Remember, kids, when it comes to technology, programmers have been saying it for years. Garbage in, garbage out. In this case the garbage-in is all of the embedded inequalities of American life, whether that's racism, sexism, whatever, or just little simple things like a social worker's reaction to the appearance of a working-class versus a middle-class home. Automate,
Frederic Bush
I wanted to like this book, but the author is not trustworthy -- claims without evidence that she was secretly investigated for insurance fraud, moves beyond the evidence on two of her case studies. While she does marshal evidence that automated welfare changes in Indiana were bungled to ruinous effect, for her other case studies she does not compare the effectiveness of algorithms with the effectiveness of people, and instead unfairly points out the faults of algorithms without pointing out the ...more
Carlos Castillo
May 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Read before creating your machine learning models

If you're a researcher or practitioner who wants to create new methods for evaluating risks, prioritizing benefits, or similar applications, read this first. It is a great analysis grounded on the study of three key cases in the US, but from which you can draw general conclusions and guidelines.
Andrei Barbu
Apr 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A terrifying view into a dystopian future that we're blindly walking into.
Mar 14, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: priority-list
2.5 stars. I'd been really excited about the book, so I think my rating is lower than it would have been since it didn't live up to my expectations, mostly because many of the arguments were structured around anecdotes.
Here is another sociological contribution to critical studies of the digital age. In this book, Eubanks uses three case studies of reconfiguration of social services to digital automation - what she dubs the "digital poorhouse" and their consequences. So, this book takes its place with Cathy O'Neill's Weapons of Math Destruction and David Lyon's framework of the surveillance society. In all three cases, digital systems serve as diversion (pushing people off social services), managing scarcity ...more
Feb 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Anyone who has ever claimed that technological development is linked to social progress must read this book. I was blown away.

I want to give a special mention to the “Oath of Non-Harm for an Age of Big Data”. Everyone working in government, technology, or really anywhere should have a copy of this sitting on their desk.
Jessie Seagull
Nov 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
is very good book,
so excelent and beautiful im like
Lance Eaton
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 ...more
Mar 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An excellent dissection of the largely unheralded construction of a “digital poorhouse” in the United States: the systematic collection and classification of data about the poor as a means to manage (and reduce the numbers of) people demanding social assistance. This data is then weaponized against the people who are being surveilled: Although sometimes framed as a way of ensuring more targeted delivery of benefits, Eubanks shows convincingly that the real purposes are about exercising social ...more
Zella Kate
Wanted to like this book more than I did. The arguments Eubanks makes are solid, and the best part of the book are her profiles of high-tech social programs gone awry, whether they are the social services system in Indiana, housing for the homeless programs in Los Angeles, or child abuse prediction systems in Pittsburgh. These profiles reminded me of long-form journalism, the type of in-depth reporting you see in better-quality magazines. They were well-written and included powerful anecdotes ...more
Mar 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating and well written account of how digital decision making in the form of automated systems, algorithms, etc. perpetuate inequality and profiling that has its roots in the early years of social help for the poor...deciding who is “worthy”of assistance or help.

The comparison of today’s methodologies to the county poor house/farm is fascinating. Leading to today’s “digital poorhouse.”

Working with healthcare plans with their automated systems helps me to understand the depth of the mire
Oct 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4 stars. I think that EVERYBODY working on technology that involves managing personal data should read this book. Specially, but not exclusively people working in government agencies, NGOs and organizations that work with unprivileged people.

This is a well-researched book, showing many aspects of what can go wrong when we add technology without thinking about the social and ethical implications of that. How much more opaque public policies result from this and how these problems target mainly
Matthew Noe
Apr 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This a necessary, powerful work threading the history if failure to do right by the poor in the United States up to the present - the physical poorhouse to the digital. If you've ever believed systems - political or digital - to be neutral or objective, I want to especially encourage you to read this. For those who can't conceive or be open to the idea that being poor isn't a moral failure... well, you should read this too and maybe you'll finally start to see the light.
Nov 26, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked the book. I first heard about it on a podcast and I found the topic very interesting, so I decided to give the book a try and I was not disappointed :)

Everything is explained in a very detailed way and in such a way that even somebody with a very basic understanding of how these tools are created and operate can understand what she's talking about, still she really goes deep into each one of the cases she presents to the reader.

I recommend to read it if you're interested in this topic or
Sophie Wang
Nov 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent breakdown of history of how poverty is created and maintained for various reasons by the elite/middle class, excellent case studies from public social services, housing, and child abuse/neglect. Highly recommend, clearly and compellingly written - dense with information but not dense with difficult-to-parse academic terms and phrasings.
Harald Winkler
Jul 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating account of how artificial intelligence might worsen inequality. Eubanks' examples are drawn from the US, with algorithms deciding who might get insurance cover; risk models aimed to identify people at risk but also labelling them, and more. With a strong ethical, pro-poor approach.
JP Beaty
Interesting and troubling. Made a good argument for the complicity of tech in the constant war on the welfare state. This could tie in really well with other studies of surveilling institutions and neoliberalism. Worth reading if interested in any of those themes.
Dawn Betts-Green (Dinosaur in the Library)
Full review to be published later this year; also will be on channel
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“We all live in the digital poorhouse. We have always lived in the world we built for the poor. We create a society that has no use for the disabled or the elderly, and then are cast aside when we are hurt or grow old. We measure human worth based only on the ability to earn a wage, and suffer in a world that undervalues care and community. We base our economy on exploiting the labor of racial and ethnic minorities, and watch lasting inequities snuff out human potential. We see the world as inevitably riven by bloody competition and are left unable to recognize the many ways we cooperate and lift each other up.

But only the poor lived in the common dorms of the county poorhouse. Only the poor were put under the diagnostic microscope of scientific clarity. Today, we all live among the digital traps we have laid for the destitute.”
“Oath of Non-Harm for an Age of Big Data I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability, the following covenant: I will respect all people for their integrity and wisdom, understanding that they are experts in their own lives, and will gladly share with them all the benefits of my knowledge. I will use my skills and resources to create bridges for human potential, not barriers. I will create tools that remove obstacles between resources and the people who need them. I will not use my technical knowledge to compound the disadvantage created by historic patterns of racism, classism, able-ism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, religious intolerance, and other forms of oppression. I will design with history in mind. To ignore a four-century-long pattern of punishing the poor is to be complicit in the “unintended” but terribly predictable consequences that arise when equity and good intentions are assumed as initial conditions. I will integrate systems for the needs of people, not data. I will choose system integration as a mechanism to attain human needs, not to facilitate ubiquitous surveillance. I will not collect data for data’s sake, nor keep it just because I can. When informed consent and design convenience come into conflict, informed consent will always prevail. I will design no data-based system that overturns an established legal right of the poor. I will remember that the technologies I design are not aimed at data points, probabilities, or patterns, but at human beings.” 2 likes
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