56:350:595 Digital Inequality (Fall 2021)

[Image Credit: Joy Buolamwini, "Aspire Mirror"]

Algorithmic inequality and digital profiling. Disinformation. Cyberbullying and online harassment. Dark patterns. Sexist apps. Toxic online communities. Gendered Artificial Intelligence. Multimodal orientalism. Digital divides, digital redlining, and the New Jim Code. Dissemination of racialized media and yellow peril rhetoric in the coverage of COVID-19.

While technologies have created and exacerbated inequalities for millennia, the expansiveness contemporary digital systems call for sustained attention to such matters in digital studies, cultural studies, and rhetorical theory. This course will address these systems of digital inequality and exclusion. In doing so, we will address their wide ranging impacts and the various ways communities respond to digital exclusions.

Through a series of writing prompts and provocations, the course will ask students to rethink, reimagine, redesign, and develop strategies for living within unjust, unequal, and exclusionary digital infrastructures.

Rules of Engagement

What is the purpose of a graduate seminar, and how does one use such a space to engage with texts? This document offers some answers to these questions and serves as a kind of constitution for our class.

The military root of the phrase "rules of engagement" is unfortunate because we are actually interested in something as nonviolent as possible. Of course, any interpretation of a text will do violence to it. This is the nature of interpretation. We fit a text or a set of ideas into a pre-existing framework that we already have. This is unavoidable. But we can try our best to forestall that violence or to at least soften the blow. In the interest of this kind of approach, this class will observe the following rules:

1. Disagreement and agreement are immaterial.

Our primary task is to understand, and this does not require agreement or disagreement. This seminar only asks that you agree to read, consider, analyze, and ask questions about the texts and objects we will address.

In his essay "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle," Kenneth Burke presents us with a succinct encapsulation of this first rule of engagement:

The appearance of Mein Kampf in unexpurgated translation has called for far too many vandalistic comments. There are other ways of burning books than on the pyre - and the favorite method of the hasty reviewer is to deprive himself and his readers by inattention. I maintain that it is thoroughly vandalistic for the reviewer to content himself with the mere inflicting of a few symbolic wounds upon this book and its author, of an intensity varying with the resources of the reviewer and the time at his disposal. Hitler's "Battle" is exasperating, even nauseating; yet the fact remains: If the reviewer but knocks off a few adverse attitudinizings and calls it a day, with a guaranty in advance that his article will have a favorable reception among the decent members of our population, he is contributing more to our gratification than to our enlightenment" (The Philosophy of Literary Form, 191)

We are more interested in enlightenment than gratification.

2. An argument is a machine to think with.

This is another version of I.A. Richards's claim that “a book is a machine to think with." The "with" here should be read in two different ways. We read "with" an argument by reading alongside it. We "tarry" with it. We get very close to it and join it during a long walk. Notice that this requires that we stay with the author rather than diverging down a different path, questioning the route, or pulling out our own map. But "with" here also means that the argument is a tool that we must first understand before using. Our job is to learn how this tool works. It has multiple moving parts and purposes. It has multiple audiences. We need to understand all of this before we make any attempt to use the argument, and we certainly need to do all of this before we can even think about disagreeing with it.

3. Ask that question sincerely, or the principle of "generous reading."

Why the hell would s/he argue that? If you find yourself asking this question, then take the next step by answering your own question. Why would s/he argue that? If I am indignant about the argument, does this suggest that I am not the audience? If the argument seems ridiculous, is it relying on definitions that I find foreign? If I think the argument is brilliant, is it because I am in fact the target audience, so much so that I am having a difficult time gaining any kind of critical distance?

The principle of "generous reading" has little to do with being "nice." Instead, it is more about reading in a generative way, in a way that opens the text up rather than closes it down. This requires that we read a text on its own terms, understanding how an argument is deploying certain concepts and ideas (see Rule #2).


Professor: Jim Brown
Class Time: Monday, 6:00-8:50pm
Meeting Place: Armitage 219

Professor Brown's Office: Digital Commons, Room 104
Office Hours: Monday, 4:30-6:00pm, or by appointment (via Zoom)
Email: jim[dot]brown[at]rutgers[dot]edu

Course Website: http://courses.jamesjbrownjr.net/595_fall2021

Learning Outcomes
Upon completion of this class, students will be able to:

  • Effectively summarize and analyze arguments in digital studies, rhetorical studies, and related fields
  • Apply sustainable reading and writing methods to a range of academic arguments, allowing them to effectively prepare for future projects or comprehensive exams
  • Understand and extend research questions and projects related to the topic of digital inequality in a way that allows them to understand its stakes, impacts, and potential responses to it.
  • Develop research projects in various modes, including writing and/or digital media arts.

Required Books
Most readings for this course will be made available to you as PDFs. Check Canvas for details. You may also purchase hard copies of our texts. A full list of our texts is available at the course bibliography

Texts to purchase:

Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, Legacy Russell

Course Work and Grades
In this class, the following work will be evaluated:

  • Weekly Talking Points (15%)
  • Collaborative Annotations (25%)
  • Weekly writing prompts(30%)
  • Final Project (30%)

Grades will be assigned on the following scale:

A 90-100
B+ 87-89
B 80-86
C+ 77-79
C 70-76
D 60-69
F 59 and below

This course affirms people of all gender expressions and gender identities. If you have a preferred gender pronoun, feel free to correct me. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me directly.

Code of Conduct and Academic Integrity
Rutgers University-Camden seeks a community that is free from violence, threats, and intimidation; is respectful of the rights, opportunities, and welfare of students, faculty, staff, and guests of the University; and does not threaten the physical or mental health or safety of members of the University community, including in classroom space, and a community in which students respect academic integrity and the integrity of your own and others’ work.

As a student at the University you are expected adhere to the Student Code of Conduct and Academic Integrity Policy. To review the academic integrity policy, go to https://deanofstudents.camden.rutgers.edu/academic-integrity To review the code, go to: https://deanofstudents.camden.rutgers.edu/student-conduct

Please Note: The conduct code specifically addresses disruptive classroom conduct, which means "engaging in behavior that substantially or repeatedly interrupts either the instructor's ability to teach or student learning. The classroom extends to any setting where a student is engaged in work toward academic credit or satisfaction of program-based requirements or related activities." Please be aware of classroom and out-of-classroom expectations by making yourself familiar with and by following the Student Code of Conduct

The Office of Disability Services
Office of Disability Services (ODS)- Students with Disabilities
If you are in need of academic support for this course, accommodations can be provided once you share your accommodations indicated in a Letter of Accommodation issued by the Office of Disability Services (ODS). If you have already registered with ODS and have your letter of accommodations, please share this with me early in the course. If you have not registered with ODS and you have or think you have a disability (learning, sensory, physical, chronic health, mental health or attentional), please contact ODS by first visiting their website https://success.camden.rutgers.edu/disability-services.The website will further direct you who to contact and how to contact them depending on the free, confidential services you are in need of.

Please Note: Accommodations will be provided only for students with a Letter of Accommodation from ODS. Accommodation letters only provide information about the accommodation, not about the disability or diagnosis.

Computers, Smartphones, etc.
Please feel free to use your computer or any other device during class, provided that your use of it is related to what we are working on in class. Please silence cell phones during class.

Shared Files, Course Website, and Email
You should check your email daily. Class announcements about readings and assignments will be distributed through email and on Canvas. The course website will also have important information about assignments and policies. Pay close attention to the course calendar as we move through the semester. I reserve the right to move things around if necessary.


This course uses a method I call "drilling down." We start with a contemporary work of research (what I call a "keystone text"), and then we read a selection of texts cited in the keystone texts.

For each of the six keystone texts, we will have a short writing assignment. These are due (uploaded to Canvas) before you come to class.

Every week, regardless of what type of texts we are reading, we will complete collaborative annotations in Canvas using Hypothesis software. These annotations are due the day before class, which gives me a chance to read your responses prior to our discussion.

Finally, each day a reading is assigned, you should bring a set of "talking points" to class. These are informal notes, but they should provide a kind of "agenda" for you during our class meetings - they can include questions, comments, quotations from the reading, or any other information that you would find helpful during lectures and discussions.

September 8

Reading: Darius Kazemi, "Run Your Own Social"

September 13

Reading: Keystone Text - Halcyon Lawrence, "Siri Disciplines"
Writing: Hypothesis annotations completed by Sunday (9/12); Short Writing Assignment #1 due by 6:00pm; Bring talking points to class

September 20

Reading: Drill Down Texts - Ramsey Nasser, "Command Lines: performing Identity and Embedding Bias" (video); Meryl Alper, Giving Voice Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality
Writing: Hypothesis annotations completed by Sunday; Bring talking points to class

September 27

Reading: Keystone Text - Graham and Hopkins, "AI for Social Justice: New Methodological Horizons in Technical Communication"
Writing: Hypothesis annotations completed by Sunday; Short Writing Assignment #2 due by 6:00pm; Bring talking points to class

October 4

Reading: Drill Down Texts - Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology; Edenfield et. al., "Queering tactical technical communication: DIY HRT."
Writing: Hypothesis annotations completed by Sunday; Bring talking points to class

October 11

Reading: Keystone Text - Steele, Digital Black Feminism
Writing: Hypothesis annotations completed by Sunday; Short Writing Assignment #3 due by 6:00pm; Bring talking points to class

October 18

Reading: Drill Down Texts - Fouché "Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud: African Americans, American artifactual culture, and Black vernacular technological creativity; Baraka, A. "Technology and ethos"; Tonia Sutherland, "Archival Amnesty: In search of Black American transitional and restorative justice"
Writing: Hypothesis annotations completed by Sunday; Bring talking points to class

October 25

Reading: Keystone Text - Louise Amoore, Cloud Ethics
Writing: Hypothesis annotations completed by Sunday; Short Writing Assignment #4 due by 6:00pm; Bring talking points to class

November 1

Reading: Drill Down Texts - Foucault, "What is an Author"; Haraway, "Situated Knowledges"
Writing: Hypothesis annotations completed by Sunday; Bring talking points to class

November 8

Reading: Keystone Text - Amaro, "As If"
Writing: Hypothesis annotations completed by Sunday; Short Writing Assignment #5 due by 6:00pm; Bring talking points to class

November 15

Reading: Drill Down Texts - Joy Buolamwini, "Aspire Mirror"; Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks excerpt; Harney and Moten, The Undercommons (excerpt)
Writing: Hypothesis annotations completed by Sunday; Bring talking points to class

November 22

Reading: Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism
Writing: No hypothesis annotations due; Short Writing Assignment #6 due by 6:00pm; Bring talking points to class

November 29

No Class - Rutgers Observes Wednesday Schedule

December 6

Reading: Drill Down Texts - Cárdenas, “Trans of Color Poetics: Stitching Bodies, Concepts, and Algorithms"; Halberstam, "The Wild Beyond," Zach Blas (video)"Facial Weaponization Suite"
Writing: No hypothesis annotations due; Drafting final project and presentation; Bring talking points to class

December 13

Final project due, presentations during class


Weekly Talking Points (15%)

For each day that a reading is assigned, you should bring a set of "talking points" to class. These are informal notes, but they should provide a kind of "agenda" for you during our class meetings - they can include questions, comments, quotations from the reading, or any other information that you would find helpful during lectures and discussions. These will be collected at the end of class, and you may make notes on them during class meetings.

These are graded on a Credit/No Credit basis and are each worth 1 point. As long as you put forth a good faith effort, you will receive credit.

Collaborative Annotations (25%)

For our readings, you will be using a tool called Hypothesis to highlight significant passages and to record observations about those passages. The goal here is to read together, to try to make sense of what we are reading in a collective way. Annotations are due by Sunday.This provides me with an opportunity to review your annotations before our class meeting.

We will annotate nearly every reading through the November 15 meeting, and each annotation assignment is worth 1.5 points. These assignments are graded on a credit/no-credit basis. Hypothesis allows you to annotate certain passages and to record "page notes" (notes that apply to the entire reading). You may also find that you want to reply to another student's annotations. While I do not require any specific number of annotations or notes, I will be looking to see that you have put forth a good faith effort to complete the assignment.

There are many ways to approach this method of collective annotation. Here's a guide developed by Dr. Nathaniel Rivers at St. Louis University, which presents some "do's" and "don'ts" of collaborative annotation. Annotations to our readings might do a number of things, including asking questions, pointing to another related source, connecting a reading to other readings in the class, or any other approach that you think might be useful to you and your classmates.

There's only one strict rule when it comes to these annotations: You can't say "I agree" or "I disagree." This may seem counter intuitive, but the goal of our readings isn't to agree or disagree with the author or even with one another. The goal is to ask questions, to figure out why the author is making certain arguments, and to consider what is most important about the argument we're reading.

As I look at your annotations and consider whether or not they deserve credit, I will be asking the following questions:

  • Does your annotation demonstrate that you have read the entire assigned reading?
  • Does your annotation demonstrate that you are considering what was posted previously and engaging in a conversation with the rest of the group?
  • Does your annotation provide evidence that you've thought carefully about the reading and its relationship to our class discussions?
  • Does your annotation demonstrate that you have put forth a good faith effort at completing the assignment?

Short Writing Assignments (30%)

For each of our keystone texts, you will complete a short response to a writing prompt. There will be six of these assignments, and each is worth five points.

These short papers should be between 750-1500 words (with the exception of paper #6, which follows a slightly different format), and they should demonstrate that you've thought carefully about the prompt and about the reading. The prose in these papers should reflect some level of revision, but they do not have to be perfectly polished. I am primarily interested in the ideas generated by the practice of writing these papers. Show me careful thinking, and I'll be willing to let sloppy sentences slide.

The aim of the prompts is to provoke new ways of thinking about the reading and about the topic of the class, and I may ask you to think about things you're not accustomed to thinking about in ways that might also be new. Consider these papers as opportunities to take risks in your thinking. These are low stakes assignments meant to provide some space for creativity.

For your final project, you will choose one of the short responses and expand it to propose a larger project. This means you should consider each of these short writing assignments as potential rough drafts for that final project.

When providing feedback on these, I will focus on how you might expand on the ideas in the paper for the final project. I will also be asking the following questions:

  • Does the paper fall within the word count range?
  • Have you responded to the prompt?
  • Is there evidence that you have carefully read and engaged with the assigned reading?
  • Does the paper demonstrate an attempt at engaging with the theories and concepts in the reading?

Prompt #1: Lawrence

In "Siri Disciplines," Lawrence argues that speech technologies like Siri operate in a disciplinary mode - they force nonstandard speakers of English to assimilate, and they exclude any speech practices to don't fit the narrow conception of what counts as "understandable." We could extend this critique to other technologies as well, even the keyboards we use discipline us and shape the way we write and think.

What approaches to design might help us create technologies that avoid this disciplinary mode? How might we create technologies that aren't rooted in discipline and exclusion? If technologies like Siri discipline, are there ways we might redesign them? Or we could even think beyond particular technologies: Are there general approaches to design that could result in technologies that do not force users to assimilate? Lawrence provides one possible answer to this question when she says that developers "on the periphery" are most likely to offer a way out of this bind. Where else might we look, and what approaches could show the most promise?

Prompt #2: Graham and Hopkins

Choose one of the approaches to sML-based text classification described by Graham and Hopkins and use it to propose a potential "AI for Social Justice" project. Be as detailed as you can: What is the research question you would pursue? Why is that question important? How would you carry out the study? What data would you analyze? What would you expect to find and why? What might you need (including, but not limited to certain expertise with machine learning) to complete the study? Who might you collaborate with?

Prompt #3: Steele

Steele argues that Black women are technically savvy but that technoculture has defined technology in a narrow (Western, white) way that excludes that savvy or that understands it as not *real* technology: "Black women have always engaged with technology; it is the definition of technology and technical expertise that shifted." Steele is asking us to reconsider what the term "technology" really means.

What is a practice that is deemed by many to be "not technical" or at least "not technical enough," and how does redefining that practice as "technical" or "technological" change our orientation to the practice. Think here of the spaces you interact with on a regular basis. Are there practices that are seen by many as frivolous, silly, non-serious, simple, or easily executed by anyone? Why are they seen that way? How could you reframe them as technical and as the result of craft, technique, or expertise? How does such a reframing help us see these practices in a new way?

Prompt #4: Amoore

Amoore argues that an algorithm's single output is too often seen as rooted in certainty and correctness and that even critiques of algorithms fall prey to this problem. If a predictive policing algorithm determines that a certain neighborhood should be patrolled due to the data fed to it, police departments tend to treat this result as a truth, and they act accordingly. Critics, on the other hand, aim to correct the racist, classist assumptions that led to that result, trying to uncover the algorithm's embedded biases. Amoore argues for a different approach altogether, offering a "cloud ethics" that does not accept algorithmic determinations as true or certain but also does not call for an approach that would break open the "black box" and aim to correct its biases.

So, what does a cloud ethics look like? In chapter 6, Amoore suggests that algorithmic results are "fabulations" and that a cloud ethics should not seek to correct those fantastical stories or point out the "real story" but should rather "confront the specific fabulatory functions of today's algorithms with a kind of fabulation of our own" (158). By creating other fabulations and stories, "the single output of the algorithm is reopened and reimagined as an already ethicopolitical being in the world." We create more stories to highlight that the algorithm is tellings stories and not offering solid truths.

Can you imagine an example of this cloud ethics in practice? What would it look like? How would it work? What algorithm could we engage with as we create "fabulations of our own"?

Prompt #5: Amaro

Computer vision technologies routinely misclassify or fail to recognize nonwhite faces, and many have argued that this indicates a lack of diversity in the datasets used to train these technologies as well as a lack of diversity in computer programming teams. But Amaro offers a different kind of critique, one aimed at the very nature of computer vision technologies. Amaro argues that the inclusion of black faces in datasets, and thus the creation of systems that recognize black faces, is not the only response to this problem. In fact, he argues that it is a response that might make many problems worse.

Given that computer vision technologies are based on a logic of "coherence," such technologies constantly aim to make sense of that which they see as incoherent. If whiteness is the norm, blackness is seen as incoherent, as a problem to be solved. But for Amaro, blackness is coherent in that it is "continually taking shape." If an algorithmic system perceives this as incoherence and thus tries to either make it cohere (by comparing it against a norm) or excludes it altogether (further solidifying the norm), then the answer is not to incorporate blackness into that system. Instead, it is to imagine an entirely new system.

In this short writing assignment, your task is to imagine a technology inspired by Amaro's framework. What technology can you imagine that is not rooted in "coherence and detectability"? This does not have to be a computer vision technology, though it can be. Your job is to invent, to treat this as a thought experiment: What other possibilities can we imagine if we take Amaro's argument as our starting point? What other futures are possible if the "black technical object" is not understood as needing to conform to the algorithm but is instead understood as an invitation to think differently about technology and design?

Prompt #6: Russell

You have now completed 5 of these short papers, responding to the prompts that I have provided. Your task in this final assignment is to write a prompt for readers of Legacy Russell's Glitch Feminism.

The length of this paper will obviously not be 750-1000 words. In fact, depending on how you write this prompt, it could be as short as a single sentence or as long as multiple paragraphs. Regardless of its length, your job is to create a prompt that would allow someone reading Glitch Feminism to engage with its ideas in an inventive way.

Final Project (30%)

For your final project, you will choose one of the short responses and expand it to propose a larger project. This means that you should consider each of these short writing assignments as potential rough drafts for that final project.

Your final project is not actually a completed project but is instead a proposed project. The proposal will be submitted as a written document, and you will also deliver a brief, informal presentation that explains your proposal to the class.

There is no minimum or maximum length for the written proposal. However, your in-class presentation cannot be longer than 10 minutes.

Here is what your final proposal and presentation should contain:

1) Explain how you came to a research question that you would like to pursue. Which text, question, or issue in class provoked this line of thinking for you? Which writing prompt was the "start" of this idea?

2) What is your research question? What do you want to ask, and why?

3) Who is the audience you imagine for this project? Which of the authors that we have read (or which group of scholars) do you think would be the target audience for this research?

4) What method would you use to do this research? How would you carry out the research, and what would your "stuff" or "data" be for this project? Would it be an archival project? A project that examines some data set? A close analysis of some specific digital system? Something else?

5) What would you expect to find in this study and why?

6) What form would the final product take? Is it a piece of writing? A video? An audio project? Something else?

Course Bibliography

Alper, Meryl. 2017. Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality. MIT Press.

Amaro, Ramon. n.d. “As If.” E-Flux. Accessed August 26, 2021. https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/becoming-digital/248073/as-if/.

Amoore, Louise. 2020. Cloud Ethics. Duke University Press.

“Aspire Mirror.” n.d. Accessed August 26, 2021. http://www.aspiremirror.com/.

Baraka, Amiri. 1971. “Technology and Ethos.” In Raise Rage Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965. New York: Random House.

Benjamin, Ruha. 2019. Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. John Wiley & Sons.

Cárdenas, Micha. n.d. “Trans of Color Poetics: Stitching Bodies, Concepts, and Algorithms.” S&F Online. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://sfonline.barnard.edu/traversing-technologies/micha-cardenas-trans....

Computer History Museum. n.d. "Command Lines: Performing Identity and Embedding Bias." Accessed August 26, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIvJ4czF118&ab_channel=ComputerHistoryMu....

Edenfield, Avery C., Steve Holmes, and Jared S. Colton. 2019. “Queering Tactical Technical Communication: DIY HRT.” Technical Communication Quarterly 28 (3): 177–91.

“Facial Weaponization Suite.” n.d. Zach Blas (blog). Accessed August 26, 2021. https://zachblas.info/works/facial-weaponization-suite/.

Fanon, Frantz. 2008. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove press.

Foucault, Michel. 1994. “What Is an Author?” In Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, edited by James D Faubion. The New Press.

Fouché, Rayvon. 2006. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud: African Americans, American Artifactual Culture, and Black Vernacular Technological Creativity.” American Quarterly 58 (3): 639–61.

Russell, Legacy. Glitch Feminism. 2020. Penguin Random House.

Graham, S. Scott, and Hannah R. Hopkins. 2021. “AI for Social Justice: New Methodological Horizons in Technical Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly, no. just-accepted.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–99.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study.

Mullaney, Thomas S., Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks, and Kavita Philip. 2021. Your Computer Is on Fire. MIT Press.

Steele, Catherine Knight. 2021. Digital Black Feminism. New York University Press.

Sutherland, Tonia. n.d. “Archival Amnesty.”