The Prison Cell is Everywhere

Surveillance, AI, and the Future of Oppression
Stephani Maari Booker

A few years ago, I read an interview with director Ava DuVernay (“13th”) about the chain leading from pre-Civil War chattel slavery to modern-day incarceration. One assertion DuVernay made stuck with me. She said that one should be wary of conservatives jumping on the “end mass incarceration” bandwagon, because they know that mass surveillance is coming to take its place.

With that idea planted, I wrote the first in a series of near- future science fiction stories, “Adjudicated,” about a woman of African descent who is arrested, arraigned, and implanted with nanobots that turn her into a walking, talking audio- video recorder with GPS monitoring. The story was published recently in “Astral Waters Review,” an online journal of inclusive science fiction and fantasy.

My series of short stories is focused on technologies being used to maintain and uphold classism and capitalism, as well as punitive actions against sex workers, people with chemical addictions, the poor, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Because of the related material, I attended a video panel discussion by the Walker Art Center in October entitled “Futures Focus: Race and Technology.”

The panelists were film director Shalini Kantayya, New York University professor Meredith Broussard, and Valeria Lopez Torres, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota.

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Lopez Torres, a design student whose research interests include artificial intelligence (AI), talked about “techno- chauvinism.” The term was coined by Broussard to describe how the presumed advantages of technology help justify increasingly invasive uses, and that the public is lured into accepting privacy-invading technologies by the convenience they offer in shopping, for example.

The panel discussion was centered on “Coded Bias,” a documentary about facial recognition software (FRS) and algorithms. In the film, FRS was proven to not recognize dark-skinned or feminine faces accurately, showing that the automated computations that tech companies create — as well as the masses of data fed into them from Internet usage, smart phones, and other sources — are rife with the same systemic biases that plague society. Biased algorithms determine everything from what results you see when you do a Google search to who should get better credit card rates.

Broussard said that facial recognition software is being used today at a New York City housing project as a form of identification and surveillance with residents who are low income and predominately BIPOC.

In the film, one resident describes people being harassed by project management based on FRS surveillance, which is problematic. FRS has been shown in studies to fail at accurately recognizing Brown, Indigenous, and Asian faces.

Broussard suggests regulation is needed. “We need an FDA [Food and Drug Administration] for algorithms,” she said.

Kantayya talked about how the unbridled power of today’s technology barons — Microsoft, Amazon, Google — makes it hard to battle against the power of AI. Technology barons at the top today are wealthy, white, cis men.

The second story in my series, “Judie-Junkie Blues,” illustrates the current mass incarceration of people with chemical addiction, joined with the eventual extreme of mass surveillance and invasive technological interventions. I believe that if no progressive change is made, our future will be a society in which people will live in a prison cell everywhere we go.


Stephani Maari Booker (she/her), author of “Secret Insurrection: Stories from a Novel of a Future Time,” writes nonfiction, speculative fiction, erotic fiction, and poetry. goodreads.com/athenapm


Editor’s Note:

We are featuring Stephani Maari Booker’s “Judie-Junkie Blues” story in monthly installments. Find the first installment here.

Subsequent parts of the story will be featured online only. Sign up to our e-newsletter to be alerted when they are available.

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