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Artist Stephanie Dinkins discusses race, gender and digital inequalities

A transmedia artist based in New York, Stephanie Dinkins speaks with STIR about the biases in data and cultural erasure in artificial intelligence and other digital systems.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Jul 31, 2021

What interesting times we live in, witnessing the moments of the emergence of a new world. In many ways we are on the brink of extraordinary changes. In our natural environment, climate change threatens our ecosystems and our very existence, forcing us to look and relook at generally accepted modes of production. In our digital environment, big data and artificial intelligence work hand in hand to enmesh themselves into our lives, creating technological interventions in our personal lives. Even in terms of social and cultural structures we are seeing strong demand for revolution. These themes seem to be running in parallel but in fact, their simultaneous development drives us to reevaluate the normative world order. In anticipation of this change, Stephanie Dinkins uses the aid of technology in her artistic expression in attempt to create awareness about the need for a culturally diverse and inclusive digital future.

Concerned with gender, race and data inequalities, Dinkins tells us how data biases influence narratives around these subjects in ways that manifest into our lives. She says, “Algorithms are the building blocks used to create sophisticated machine learning and artificially intelligent applications that govern our communications, medical records, business endeavors, judicial systems, and all other structures that make up our society. Artificially intelligent systems - including the algorithms they are built on - are becoming the ubiquitous, unseen arbiters of daily life. Everyone who has applied for a job or uses credit cards encounters algorithmic systems in ways they may or may not be aware of.”

A video still from Dinkins’ project Not The Only One (2021) | Stephanie Dinkins | STIRworld
A video still from Dinkins’ project Not the Only One (2021) Image: Courtesy of Stephanie Dinkins Studio

She emphasises the subliminal consequences of such controlled information saying, “Uncontested bias and racism can be deliberately or carelessly embedded in or perpetuated through algorithmic systems, big data and artificial intelligence (AI). I am concerned about and dedicated to understanding their relationship to sustenance and wellbeing for communities of colour. My work examines the opportunities and the perils of this nascent technology, exploring what possibilities exist to call out or even eliminate racism from algorithmic systems and create social, legal, and institutional systems that are more just and equitable”.

A screenshot of the Binary Calculations Are Inadequate website | Stephanie Dinkins | STIRworld
A screenshot of the Binary Calculations Are Inadequate website Image: Courtesy of Stephanie Dinkins Studio

Dinkins’ recent project, Binary Calculations are Inadequate, looks at the construction of AI systems and its implications for corporate accountability and ethical issues, in terms of civil systems, commercial enterprises, and governmental agencies in the context of communities which are often sidelined, like people of colour. Dinkins says, “Most importantly, this project searches for what it will mean to be Black, especially with regard to the civic, educational and familial aspects of society, in the age of Artificial Intelligence”.

Although the artist focuses specifically on the narrative of the Black person in the digital world where the White and Western story is predominant, this line of thought applies across all peripheral communities, including those with physical disabilities and mental illnesses. Equally relevant to Dinkins’ attention to our digital futures are our social and environmental structures, which also require similar reform.

When Words Fail is an immersive web experience by Dinkins | Stephanie Dinkins | STIRworld
When Words Fail is an immersive web experience by Dinkins Image: Courtesy of Stephanie Dinkins Studio

Binary Calculations works as a crowd sourced database, which aims to capture the diversity of experience in order to offset the currently biased datasets we receive when engaging with digital media. Dinkins says, “Binary Calculations are Inadequate is the direct offshoot of tinkering in the space of AI by playing in the space of machine learning and data. I started to understand how algorithmic systems categorise people and things in relation to the lowest common denominator. Add to this the homogeneity of the people creating the AI systems - majority white men - and you have to speculate about who's being left out who and what is not being competently described by the algorithmic systems increasingly underpinning both small and very consequential aspects of daily life. What information about BIPOC, black folks of colour, queer folks and the disabled is not accounted for at all?”. When we ponder upon this issue further, one begins to see that this is a phenomenon which transcends any one particular subject. This concerns the control and channeling of information as a whole. For instance, if you were to look for references online to help you understand your body and its healing (an urgent topic at this time), the results you receive are most likely to be allopathic, a western school of thought, with any other ideologies labeled ‘alternative’. Our digital experiences are being colonised in ways which enforce the single story under the innocent guise of the ‘normal’.

01 min watch Secret Garden (2020) is an immersive installation by Dinkins | Stephanie Dinkins | STIRworld
Secret Garden (2020): an immersive installation by Dinkins Video: Courtesy of Stephanie Dinkins Studio

The artist continues to elaborate upon the interactive platform saying, “It seems to me that the algorithmic algorithms and artificial intelligence are here to stay this time around. If that's the case, then, it is very important that communities that are often pushed to the margins or registered in terms that they understand in terms that understand their understanding or in ways that describe them fully as people. Binary Calculations seeks to address this to some extent or at least model the possibility of providing nuanced understanding of what things are in a way that is defined from the bottom up so that we don't lose our cultural diversity and richness. A classic example that I use is the wedding dress. If you show an algorithmic system or asking a grid system to identify a wedding dress or to show you what a wedding dress looks like it will most likely show you the western white dress version of wedding dress. There are, however, many different variations on the idea of a wedding dress in the world and one could easily think of a wedding dress being defined as a beautiful red Indian sari or a multicoloured Ghanaian dress”.

A team at the University of Michigan, which includes Dinkins, has been awarded a grant of $ 4.8 million by Mellon Foundation for a continued study of digital inequalities. Dinkins was also named Yayoi Kusama Endowed Professor of Art at Stony Brook University in New York.

Rendering of Not the Only One’s virtual avatar, an amalgamation of the three women of which the artificial memoir is based on which includes Erlene Curry, Sade Dinkins and Stephanie Dinkins. | Stephanie Dinkins| STIRworld
Rendering of Not the Only One’s virtual avatar, an amalgamation of the three women of which the artificial memoir is based on which includes Erlene Curry, Sade Dinkins and Stephanie Dinkins Image: Courtesy of Stephanie Dinkins Studio

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