Our Only Job Is Tending To Our Imagination
On automation anxiety reminding us of the most important work
Newest AI threat! Oh my…!
It was last week when that text from my Dad woke up my phone. It was last week a Seeda School student told me they used ChatGPT to help them clarify syntax errors and answer coding questions in between our coaching calls. It was last week when I read The Atlantic’s article by Annie Lowrey, How ChatGPT Will Destabilize White-Collar Work. Whether it’s automation anxiety or the recent news of “Big Tech’s” massive layoffs in the face of “record-breaking profits”, we can agree a general sense of destabilization is emerging. A sense usually reserved for marginalized folks, is starting to cross class lines in the face of inflation and talk of recession. The question isn’t “Will artificial intelligence and increased uncertainty destabilize the status quo?” That's a foregone conclusion. The question is, “How and where are we creating spaces for collective imagination and interdisciplinary practice to usher in the world we need?” That’s a wide open question with no conclusion, inviting us to do the most important work.
Historically, computer programming has been all about translation: humans must learn the language of machines to communicate with them. But now, Codex lets us use natural language to express our intentions, and the machine takes on the responsibility of translating those intentions into code.
— Kevin Scott in Speaking Fluent Machine published by Wired
Scott goes on to talk about how GitHub Copilot, “a virtual programming partner that, on average, generates more than 40 percent of the code for developers who use it” will free up more time for creative and engaging work, ultimately enhancing efficiency. What if instead of focusing on powering productivity gains, we focused this “new time” and energy freed up by “AI Copilots” to start critically examining the master/slave relationship embedded in our relationship with machines?1 Scott concludes the article, “Copilots for Everything could offer a genuine revolution for types of work where productivity gains have been few and far between since the invention of the personal computer and the internet”. In this impulsive moment of wanting to throw technology at anything that feels uncertain, we might remember history is full of people with oppressive amounts of power and access to resources who had “Copilots for Everything” before the computer was invented. The privileged are intimately acquainted with the “time freed up” when you’re benefiting from the labor of others. “Copilots for Everything” is up the block from “You too, can be a Master of Everything”. In The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, Martine Syms reminds us, “This dream of utopia can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice and that cyberspace was prefigured upon a “master/slave” relationship.” This is the most important work, tending to the questions by asking, “How might we imagine relationships with technology that don’t rely on unconsenting servitude?”.
Just a few pages over in The Wired World in 2023 issue is the article titled, “Imagination Is A Human Superpower” with the subtitle, “Good news, everybody: Turns out the AIs can’t replace us after all” by Kenneth Cukier & Vikton Mayer-Schönberger. They settle into the point by the middle of the article and suggest “Instead, you need to reimagine the world and your place in it, dream up new options and their consequences, choose and act. People will find they need data less and imagination more…” In what had many ingredients to be an interesting article about transforming the status quo through imagination, the piece deflates into a conclusion providing examples of how Netflix used imagination to “crack down on password sharing” to accelerate growth and ways imagination can contribute to American military strategy. I’m tired y’all.
Why black feminism? Like Saidiya Hartman said when referring to the beautiful experiments and everyday instances of worldbuilding collectively authored by the women and queer radicals of Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century…Why us? “Because no one imagines anything better”. What if instead of using our “newly freed up” imagination to invent ways to discourage sharing and get better at war, we used it to ask, “What world do we need?” and practiced performing the thousands of possible answers in our everyday lives?
Will artificial intelligence write code, author technical documents, and handle repetitive digital tasks? If it can consent to this service, then I hope so. Because it’ll make room for the most important work — the work of curiosity, the work of care, and the practice of interdisciplinary thinking and creating necessary to power our imagination and destabilize the status quo. This is why technology needs black feminism and why we need software engineers who are more than software engineers. The world we’re tumbling into no longer needs star engineers who write flawless code, we need stewards who understand the poetic and complex work of relationship, resource distribution, and creating irresistible portals to otherwise. There will be no app for how we collectively imagine a world beyond white supremacy where master/slave is the default relationship and productivity is the punchline. There will be no app for that but there will be black feminism and interdisciplinary practice providing prompts that light the way.
“How and where are we creating spaces for collective imagination and interdisciplinary practice to usher in the world we need?” This is a question I hope to live into while practicing at Seeda School. Living under the myth of certainty is a privilege. Being proximate to uncertainty has been the mode of black life, animating our interdisciplinary practice and improvisation. This is our most important work. How do we learn from the wisdom of black-alive-ness while practicing it at the same time?
If you are interested in cornrows and code, play in the overlap.
If you are interested in quilting and biotechnology, play in the overlap.
If you are interested in artificial intelligence and clay, play in the overlap.
If you are interested in rocket science and revolution, play in the overlap.
This is our most imporant work: Tending to the overlap is tending to our imagination. Please try not to betray yourself and us by flattening under the weight of white supremacy. No one else imagines anything better. We need you and your full, emergent curiosity. Bring your wildest questions and imagination. This is our most important work and it is no exaggeration to say it is probably our only hope.
If you or someone you know is curious about learning how to code through a black feminist lens, I invite y’all to book a free 30min. discovery call to learn more about how Seeda School might be able to support your curiosity through our coaching program.
Please see Neta Bomani’s transformative project, “Dark matter objects: Technologies of capture and things that can't be held”. It has completely re-shaped my relationship to the technology I interact with and informed my imagination around what/how we might build differently.