Are Algorithms Building the New Infrastructure of Racism?

Aaron M. Bornstein in Nautilus:

13938_cf3b784c8593890043b17e24088125d4We don’t know what our customers look like,” said Craig Berman, vice president of global communications at Amazon, to Bloomberg News in June 2015. Berman was responding to allegations that the company’s same-day delivery service discriminated against people of color. In the most literal sense, Berman’s defense was truthful: Amazon selects same-day delivery areas on the basis of cost and benefit factors, such as household income and delivery accessibility. But those factors are aggregated by ZIP code, meaning that they carry other influences that have shaped—and continue to shape—our cultural geography. Looking at the same-day service map, the correspondence to skin color is hard to miss.

Such maps call to mind men like Robert Moses, the master planner who, over decades, shaped much of the infrastructure of modern New York City and its surrounding suburbs. Infamously, he didn’t want poor people, in particular poor people of color, to use the new public parks and beaches he was building on Long Island. Though he had worked to pass a law forbidding public buses on highways, Moses knew the law could someday be repealed. So he built something far more lasting: scores of overpasses that were too low to let public buses pass, literally concretizing discrimination. The effect of these and dozens of similar decisions was profound and persistent. Decades later, bus laws have in fact been overturned, but the towns that line the highways remain as segregated as ever. “Legislation can always be changed,” Moses said. “It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up.”

Today, a new set of superhighways, built from data shaped by the old structures, refresh these divisions. While the architects of the new infrastructure may not have the same insidious intent, they can’t claim ignorance of their impact, either.

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