From: Aoife T <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: re: Smithsonian exhibit about C
Date: May 15, 2038 12:50 PM EDT
To: Siobhan Whelan <email@example.com>
I’m having trouble parsing your on-the-way-to-yoga-after-dropping-off-the-kid dictation-messaging here so maybe you can confirm or deny the following sentence: Mom not only knew about the exhibit, she fucking consulted on it?
I kinda disbelieve that our mother, even with all of her (many, extensive, well-documented) flaws wanted people to watch her son’s snuff film in all its glory on their fucking phones.
I’d ask why she didn’t talk to me about it, but that’s a pretty clear “well why don’t you ever call or visit” trap I don’t really need to fall into with her (or with you, but yeah fine I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was going down for the museum preview, you would have warned me then, I figured you were busy what with the “actual job” and “family” and “therapy”).
If she couldn’t be convinced by you, O Levelheaded Oldest One, that this was a terrible idea, I’m guessing Estranged Baby over here isn’t going to have much more luck. Do you think we should just go straight to the museum?
Even hinting at the exhibit in my newsletter got me a whole new onslaught of conspiracy theorist emails. Amazing how chucklefucks still manage to find each other, even these days. “Lithium batteries can’t melt steel beams,” FFS. It’s only gonna get worse when the exhibition opens.
And seriously, please don’t tell Mom I’m in town. I’m not even really in town any more, I’m out in Northern Virginia visiting Avi (fuck, don’t tell her that either, she loves Avi more than me and would probably come out just to visit him). I shouldn’t be staying too long and if I see her we’re just going to end up in a fight and then you’ll have to hear us both give you our fucking versions of it and like, no one wants that.
I know you think I’m being hard on her and I need to be more patient. But, not to rehearse this again–I get that she lost her son and later her husband, but her grief apparently still blinds her to the fact we lost our brother and then our dad. Who, by the way, would both think that entire display was tacky as hell.
From: Aoife T <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Weird archival TC stuff
Date: May 16, 2038 11:47 PM EDT
To: Riley Easton <email@example.com>
So ostensibly this email is me letting you know I’m in DC for a little while longer so I might not be able to take Indiana for custody switching next week–we both know she was always really your cat so I’m sure she/you’ll be fine with it. Give her a bunch of affection to ignore from me.
But I think I need your help with the reason I’m still in DC. I know the last time we talked about work things got weird, but this is beyond my meager self-employed pay grade and as you fucking know you’re still the best at this stuff.
So it’s kind of a long story but I got my hands on a weird document dump from Miles Michalchuk–yes, the guy who turned up in the Potomac recently, I told you it’s a long story–and I think whatever it’s documenting is way outside my beat. It’s a mix of archived webpages (I guess this is from back when paramilitary groups were still attacking data centers and people would save sites locally just in case) and interview transcripts that kind of read like Training Commission depositions in terms of the tone and stuff (people explaining their understanding of truth commissions, their hopes/expectations for one in America, where big tech fits into their perceptions of truth and justice) but they’re like way older. They’re about stuff I’ve never heard about and can’t find in the Public Record. (Also weird: the questions are just a bunch of TKs, which means a person transcribed this instead of an AI and that person apparently didn’t care about the questions.)
I haven’t had time to get into all the files yet because it took Avi some time to actually access them in the first place (don’t ask, I can’t remember, it was boring). In exchange I’ve been busy entertaining Avi and Mel’s perpetually displeased (yet utterly charming?) infant, who took to gnawing on my print-out of the first doc I really had time to give its due. It’s an interview with a guy called Jeff Deutch. He worked at some NGO called the Syrian Archive, which was started by a Syrian activist named Hadi Al Khatib as sort of an emergency measure to preserve video content of the Syrian civil war that were being removed from social media platforms for various reasons. I couldn’t find anything about them in the Public Record, but Avi set me up with a VPN to check pre-Shitstorm internet archives outside of the United States and it looks like they were–maybe still are?–kind of a big deal (which, before you give me a hard time for not knowing about them already, might I remind you I was born in 2012 and never left the District during the entirety of the Shitstorm, please spare me another one of your famously smug child-of-globetrotting-diplomats international history lectures.)
Deutch also comes up in one of the archived webpages in the filedump–a story from a long-defunct news outfit called The Intercept about how platforms were putting war crimes prosecutions at risk through automated content takedowns. Mostly about the Syrian civil war again, but some other examples too. Basically, Facebook and YouTube back before nationalization and regulation were all about automating and outsourcing content takedowns and removing documentation of these conflicts in the process. Avi said the metadata on these files checks out–the files aren’t fakes and apparently The Intercept was real news site.
Again: why can’t I find anything corroborating this in the Public Record? I know a lot of digital content was lost in the Shitstorm, but this feels weirdly cherry-picked. Like as far as federally-approved national archives of pre-Shitstorm history go, the only Syrian Archive is documentation of Americans withdrawing troops and letting it fully devolve into a proxy war.
Okay okay, so The Thing Here Is: the TC used testimonies and documentation of “passive and active algorithmic harm, discrimination, or erasure” to allocate financial compensation to Americans and create a standard for prosecuting algorithmic crimes against Americans–which was considered controversial at the time because obviously they were still global companies, but was justified by the idea that foreign courts should do the work of holding said platforms accountable for crimes committed abroad.
But this Syrian Archive thing is a pretty obvious example of where that logic falls flat, right? What was the likelihood that any Syrian court was going to be functional enough for someone to file a lawsuit against YouTube or whatever? We all know historical traumas (algorithmic or otherwise) slipped through the cracks (unintentionally or otherwise) during the commission’s construction of the Public Record, but we usually don’t talk about how the TC abandoned any responsibility for American corporate algorithmic fuckery overseas. The absence of a lot of the content from Deutch’s interview from the Public Record suggests that maybe it never got added, or that someone wanted it to go away. Not that it sounds like compensation or retribution was that important to Deutch–this is from the interview:
One of our goals is having some kind of record, a story that’s framed. Most of the people on the team are Syrians themselves, so having Syrians being able to tell a Syrian story is quite important. Ultimately, any kind of justice that’s going to be happening won’t be happening in Germany or the [International Criminal Court] or the U.S. It’s up to Syrian people themselves to decide what to do in terms of their own Truth and Reconciliation processes. And maybe that means that we should be at some point be taking our site down. This is something I think that we’re totally open to, but right now we’ve decided after consulting with a variety of archiving and documentation initiatives that the benefits of secure long-term preservation and analysis serve an immediate role as a public good, particularly when it’s done in a transparent, detailed, and reliable way. We felt that having this information public can positively contribute to post-conflict reconstruction and stability. And that it can humanise those who are killed or injured, help societies understand the true human cost of war, and support truth and reconciliation efforts. We think that it’s important to have this kind of content available so that you can create some kind of counter-narrative to all the propaganda and misinformation out there.
Which is kind of what the Training Commission was sold as–a way for Americans to tell their stories, find justice through making a clear record of events, re-establish shared baseline truths after the Shitstorm ripped most of them apart, and forge a new path forward for an otherwise irreconcilable country.
If Michalchuk was a researcher for and “longtime confidante” of Darcy Lawson (as he was described in recent reports), maybe these are his notes from the Ashburn Institute’s initial research into the possibility of implementing truth commissions here? If so, that’s would mean they were thinking about this a lot earlier than the ceasefire. And it would probably mean Lawson knew about the Syrian Archive.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe I just got a weird filedump from a questionable source. You’re the investigative reporter, not me (please stop rolling your eyes). Is this even a thing? Do you want to do something with it? I can’t even figure out what I’d be pitching here, if there’s a pitch or just an anonymous submission to the Record or what.
Avi’s being super paranoid as usual and thinks I should put these on an alt protocol just in case so it’s not traced back here and/or subject to automated takedowns. You probably already know how to use this shit but just in case, here’s the browser you’ll need to use and here are the files. I know you’re literally the busiest human being in New York and possibly the entire sinking eastern seaboard, but look at it when you have time?
From: Aoife T <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: MDC, AWS, IDK
Date: May 17, 2038 06:57 PM EDT
Greetings from the Loudon-Fairfax Municipal Autonomous Vehicle Network, where I’m somewhere between Reston and Centreville. Landscape’s a smear between dead malls, with the occasional blip of safety-orange Another Public-Private Partnership Works! construction sign.
I’m between reporting projects right now (I think) so I’m sending out a mostly-baked draft that was supposed to run months ago but got shelved when the editor who was working on it became a casualty of the February Layoff Bloodbath (I’ll let you guess which of the three outlets implicated therein I was writing for, LOL). By the time I got the OK from a member of the outlet’s remaining skeleton crew, it was too stale to run anywhere else so I’ve kind of just been holding onto it until I had to plug a gap in the week with something (like uh, right now).
If you weren’t looking closely, you might not realize that the AR mural facing the former Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park isn’t an actual time warp. In the early years of the twenty-first century, it was common to leave posters and signs on the warehouse’s brick wall to wish incarcerated loved ones a happy birthday or remind them that people on the outside were still fighting for them. Upon first glance, it would appear the brick wall was once again covered with such signs. Instead, the space is occupied by a carefully constructed trompe l’oeil based on historical signs, which have been collected and archived by artist and activist Josephine Harding. Each sign tells a story–both through Harding’s meticulous recreation and via an AR app that allows viewers to access oral histories from the original sign creators and their formerly incarcerated loved ones, including Harding’s uncle, T. Travis Harding, who recalls the harrowing fall of 2020.
The Extended Emergency, which would soon swallow what was already being referred to as probably the last election, led to a breakdown in the logistics which kept trucking lanes open to NYC, meaning that the vendors which supplied the center couldn’t get any food or medical supplies through. Emergency protocols coupled with an inflexible management system (the Bureau of Prisons being an early adopter of hybrid-algorithmization, thanks Palantir), mandated the rejection of a substantial amount of food, drink, and medicine offered by kin, activists, and soon the city at large, leading to 12 dead of malnutrition, and dozens of others extremely ill before an analog agreement was reached. “We were on lockdown for 86 hours,” T. Travis says in the oral history recording, “Like we were the ones who’d caused it, like we were going to riot and had to be punished with these starvation tactics.” This infrastructural collapse took place a little less than two years after a power outage at the MDC went unaddressed for over a week, forcing inmates to live without heat and with limited electricity in the midst of a particularly frigid New York City winter–an event described by other interviewees in Harding’s piece, and a reminder of the inhumane conditions of American prisons even before the National Shitstorm.
Both incidents were among many examples of human rights abuses in the criminal justice system documented in the Training Commission’s voluminous dataset of citizen testimonies, interviews, recovered reporting, and other forms of archival evidence that would become the foundation–i.e. the training data–of the National Algorithm, which now recommends policy priorities and “maintains national stability.” While many were surprised that an end to incarceration was one of the system’s first–and highest-confidence–recommendations, TC lead commissioner Darcy Lawson argued that it spoke to the effectiveness of this newly-created system. “Technology is at its most powerful when it surprises us,” Lawson told Congress, “by revealing truths that we might otherwise not recognize as self-evident.”
While the MDC’s new tenants are similarly lacking in access to food and heat, those absences are now viewed as assets rather than liabilities. “Of course, we did make infrastructure improvements,” said Geoff MacManus, regional manager for Amazon Web Services’ New York Prison Rehabilitation Program, “but it turns out that dehumanizing architecture is actually pretty good for hardware.” In a way, the data center is also part of Harding’s installation: one of the hundreds of servers lining the building’s walls powers her augmented reality app.
AWS’ public-private partnership to turn America’s emptied prisons into nationalized network infrastructure is technically required by law to support the arts. Congresswoman Amal Asaif Al-Deen snuck in the requirement that all former American prisons commission original commemorative artworks and memorials in the original Prison Abolition, Transfer of Reparations, and Inquiry into Transition (PATRIOT) Resolution, citing the importance of keeping the impacts of incarceration in public memory. Recently-appointed New York City Commissioner for Cultural Affairs Lily Slavin sought out projects for each site that could not only help future generations understand the impacts prisons had on American history, but that would also remind viewers of how much work still remains to be done to address the criminal justice systems of this country.
This ongoing challenge is sharply articulated at the former Brooklyn Detention Complex on Atlantic Avenue, where Ngozi Okezie focused her installation on New York State’s past use of Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS), a technology made by the software firm Northpointe which was used by some states to determine an individual’s “risk factors” for recidivism during sentencing and setting parole conditions. Through a special agreement with the Ashburn Institute, Okezie was able to use the now-illegal tool to assess the executive leadership and board of Northpointe, producing “risk portraits” of the executives, intertwined with a visualization of each board member’s current corporate and political ties. While Northpointe was forced to dissolve and risk assessment algorithms are no longer deployed in any part of the American judiciary system, its employees faced few consequences–some former Northpointe executives work for the executive branch today, while others continue to lobby for a return of the “free market machine learning” that allowed COMPAS to exist. Prisons can be closed, but their ideology, it seems, cannot be shucked off so easily.
“These are the people who built the systems that our new society is supposedly trying to move past,” Okezie explained in an interview at the BDC (now AWSBK-Atlantic) learning center and café on the ground floor of the former BDC. “And they’re peering under the hood of the National Algorithm every day. We’re all supposed to be cool with that? We can’t pretend that anything like justice has been achieved because the ‘serious offenders’ or whatever are out at Faraday Fields awaiting tribunals.”
“That there’s even one prison left in America means we haven’t finished this work,” added activist Bobby Martinez, who has maintained a daily protest vigil outside the data center since its opening. While Martinez appreciates the artworks’ role in reiterating the tragedy of America’s carceral history, he questions whether the PATRIOT Resolution truly achieved the goal of prison abolition given the law’s approval of increased spending on surveillance, monitoring devices for home detentions, and criminal immunity for case workers. “We may have gotten people out of these cages,” he says, gesturing at the bulk of the building across the street, “But with the kind of tech they’re running in that very building and the kind of power cops–I know we’re supposed to call them ‘case workers’ now, but cops are cops are cops–have, all we’ve done is make the entire country into one big cage.”
When asked about the political implications of the data center initiative, MacManus pointed to the construction and technical jobs created by the retrofitting, as well as highlighting the community engagement projects Amazon has implemented to help the formerly incarcerated find work and re-integrate with society. He also pointed out the success of Amazon’s other major prison retrofit initiative turning the properties into Amazon fulfillment centers, which employ hundreds of formerly incarcerated persons throughout the country. But, MacManus added, he appreciated the role that these critical artworks had in “sparking dialogue” about the initiative. “Art’s really where dissent belongs in this country,” he said, “and it’s so important that as a nation, we never forget our history, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.”
That’s about where the draft got left with my now-fellow-freelancing editor; there was a section on Josh Begley’s Rikers Island installation that I was able to expand into that longer profile that ran back in March. In an ideal world, I’d be traveling the country documenting all of these new public memorials popping up across the country. While we wait for literally any editor to fund that, I guess I’ll stick to traveling the hinterlands of the DC-metro area, with bile bubbling in the back of my throat. Thanks for reading, see you next week.