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algorithmic rotoscope

Experimentation in applying texture to video using machine learning via APIs.

Algorithmic Reflections On The Immigration Debate

We are increasingly looking through an algorithmic lens when it comes to politics in our everyday lives. I spend a significant portion of my days trying to understand how algorithms are being used to shift how we view and discuss politics. One of the ongoing themes in my research is focused on machine learning, which is an aspect of technology currently being applied to news curation, identifying fake news, all the way to how we monitor and see the world online with images and video. 

Algorithms are painting a real-time picture that colors how we see the physical world around us--something that is increasingly occurring online for many of us. Because many of the creators of algorithms are white men, they often are blind and even willfully ignorant of how their algorithms and technological tools are used for evil purposes. With a focus on revenue and the interests of their investors, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and other platforms often do not see (or are willing to turn a blind eye to) how hateful groups are using their platforms to spread misinformation and hate. When you combine this with a lack of awareness when it comes history, we end up in the current situation we find ourselves in with the Trump administration.

As part of my work to understand how algorithms are shaping our world views I am playing with different ways of applying machine learning to my images and videos for use across my storytelling -- I am calling @algorotoscope. It's helping me understand how machine learning works (or not), while also giving me an artistic distraction from the increasingly inhuman world of technology. Taking photos and videos, as well as the process of training and applying the filters gives me relief, allowing me to find some balance in the very toxic digital environment I find myself in today.

I feel that we are allowing algorithms to amplify some very hateful views of the world right now, something that is being leveraged to produce some very damaging outcomes in the immigration debate. To help paint a picture of what I'm seeing from my vantage point, I took an old World War II nazi propaganda poster and used it to train a machine learning model, which I could then apply to any image or video using a platform called Algorithmia. Here is the resulting image....

The image is a photo I took from the waiting area at Ellis Island, with sunlight reflecting through the windows, lighting up the tiles in the room where millions of immigrants waiting to be admitted into this country. I feel like we are allowing our willful ignorance of history as Americans to paint the immigration debate today, something that is being accelerated and fueled by a small hateful portion of our society, with the assistance of algorithms. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other platforms are allowing their algorithms to be gamed by this very vocal minority in a way that is shaping the views of the larger population--making for a very destructive and divisive debate about something very core to our country's origin -- immigration.

If we are going to get to the bottom of this recent shift in how we operate as a society, we are going to have to work to shine a light on how these algorithms are operating, and how advertising is incentivizing platforms to be blind to their damaging effects. We are allowing algorithms and digital technology to reflect and amplify the worst within us and pushing us to be more polarized. I'm hoping to continue stimulating a more constructive conversation about how technology is being deployed, one that is NOT fueled by greed or hate, through my storytelling, programming, and imagery.