‘Volatile Contexts: Identity, Technology and Politics in a Moment of Danger’

With Susan Stryker and Chelsea Manning

L to R – Susan Stryker, Chelsea Manning

About the event

Presented by the Mills College Trans Studies Speaker Series, We Are The Voices, and the Office of the President.

Internationally acclaimed technologist and network security expert, Chelsea Manning, engages in a wide ranging public conversation with event host and Barbara Lee Chair in Women’s Leadership, Dr. Susan Stryker. The talk-show style event will explore questions ranging from national security and surveillance, artificial intelligence, trans rights,  critiques of the carceral complex, and prison abolitionism.

We Are The Voices is a Mellon Foundation Higher Learning funded project linking Mills College students and faculty with poets and scholars working in Oakland and beyond.

The Mills College Trans Studies Speakers Series, hosted by Emmy-Award winner Susan Stryker, Barbara Lee Distinguished Visiting Professor in Women’s Leadership, offers a regular public forum for exploring transgender issues with some of today’s leading thinkers, artists, and activists. 

From the blurb on the Mills Performing Arts website

About Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley)

Bradley Manning came to fame (I want to say notoriety but that isn’t really true) as the soldier who fed information to WikiLeaks (i.e. Julian Assange) for no apparent reason, as I recall at the time. This Guardian article details some of the classified information which was shared. In August 2013 he received a 35 year prison sentence for the crime of espionage, however the sentence was commuted in 2017 by President Obama, just before Trump took office. He announced his claim to gender dysphoria the day after his conviction, when he started to call himself Chelsea. It appears that mainstream media immediately complied with his wish to be called by his new name and female pronouns. In 2018, aged 30, he underwent vaginoplasty. He was imprisoned again in 2019 for 62 days for his refusal to testify to a Grand Jury.

As a blogger my research only normally extends to Googling, but it is clear to me that articles on the internet critical of Manning are not readily available. I think that speaks to where we are culturally in this moment, and the power of Google, that search results are so biased. This article was the closest I could readily find which offered a different opinion from the one pushed by Manning’s lawyers and mainstream media (i.e. that Manning’s data dump had had a negligible effect). To find the whole truth about Manning you have to put in very specific details, like ‘Bradley Manning punched a female soldier‘, and you will learn his frequent erratic behaviour was ignored by his superiors prior to his major crime.

Ironically Manning is now a security expert for the tech start up company Nym, which specialises in privacy, and they are relying on him to secure their code. Not exactly a great advertisement for a new product, you might say.

Stryker’s introduction to Chelsea Manning

Stryker began by saying that many of his students didn’t know Manning’s ‘historical importance’. He asked the audience to respect Manning’s privacy and that he would not be answering any questions about his private life (a reference to the recent tabloid story that he is dating the pop star Grimes, Grimes is the ex-partner of Elon Musk).

Stryker also told us that questions about his conviction for espionage would also not be tolerated. Some in the audience snigger in collusion. Stryker gave a very much curated list of some of the data that Manning had illegally leaked – designed to make him look like a social justice warrior, and also credited him with being instrumental to the Arab Spring.

Stryker said that Manning had been treated very differently by the press in comparison to men who had committed similar crimes, in particular Daniel Ellsberg. The media hadn’t recognised Manning as an anti-war truth teller, but rather painted him as an emotionally-disturbed young man. (Never mind that this characterisation was the one promoted by Manning’s own defence team, and is, in fact, true.)

Stryker said that Manning’s incarceration in a male prison was a cruel and unusual punishment. He likened Manning to Cassandra. He likened him to the woman who isn’t believed about the sexual abuse she received, or the black person who experienced police violence. He was the example of a queer trans person who had experienced the most brutal of all marginalisations. With such sophistry it is easy to forget that Manning was responsible for illegally sharing over 700,000 military documents and who knows how many lives ruined.

What wisdom do you have to share about being an incarcerated trans person?

Manning revealed that his mother is Welsh but that his ancestry is Irish. He grew up in a small rural town in Oklahoma. His father serves in the US Navy. After his parents divorced, Manning moved to the UK with his mother and was schooled there for a few years, returning to the US aged 17 to live with his father. Around this time he started to think that he might be gay and started to be ‘gender non-conforming’. His father’s new wife didn’t like him and kicked him out of the house (in actual fact, he threatened her with a knife and this NPR article details the 911 call).

According to him, he then had a period of being homeless in Chicago, before his aunt in Maryland took him in. He worked at Starbucks whilst studying there. His father wanted him to enlist into the US Navy, but Manning decided instead on the Army and recalls this was because the Army were on the news every night because of the ongoing invasion of Iraq. It was all household names on the TV discussing Iraq. He enlisted in 2007 as an intelligence analyst and was trained by the army in this specific skill. He discovered that he was really good at it and enjoyed doing it.

After he was arrested he was held in solitary confinement for 59 days in Kuwait, he told us. He doesn’t remember a lot of detail about that time, apart from it being hot and dark, and that it was a cage-like apparatus that he was held in. It was a transformative experience. Otherwise his time in prison was with the general population of prisoners and he had depended on the solidarity of the inmates to survive. He found, contrary to public perceptions of fighting and brutality in jail, most of the other prisoners just wanted to be left alone. It was the prison guards who posed the threat of violence and who were unaccountable for such acts.

When addressing his gender transition, he mentions the date, but crucially leaves out that it was the day after his conviction. He says it took him a year and a half to get access to hormones. The other inmates were supportive of him, and his transition, and in Manning’s own words ‘they just liked seeing an inmate get one-up on the prison system’.

Manning tells us that he then asked for ‘bottom surgery’ and that the prospect of early release was scary, as he had expected to serve the whole 35 year jail term. He had been scrambling to work out what to do with the rest of his life since.

Manning was released during the early part of Donald Trump’s presidency and he noted that everyone was glued to their smart phones, whereas he thought that was just him that had that behaviour. ‘You were ahead of the curve,’ congratulates Stryker.

What about advocacy for trans prisoners?

Intersectionality and the prison industrial complex are important phrases to Manning. His biggest interests are artificial intelligence and machine learning. He acknowledged there had been a growth in ‘awareness activism’, which he found inspiring, but added that voting in elections changed nothing and just got you beat up again.

Manning seems keen to locate himself as some sort of soothsayer about the dangers of social media, repeatedly returning to the theme of people glued to phones.

If Stryker was disappointed with such a deliberate question dodge, he didn’t show it.

Tell us about your new job

Stryker, perhaps left with little choice, then asked about what Manning clearly wanted to talk about all along; his career.

While in prison in 2016, Manning had the idea that he could help make the internet more secure. By that he meant ensuring people could have conversations and information share without interception. Currently such technology is slow and it is his job to find a way of making it faster.

He is also involved in education around ‘crypto technology’. He talked for a few minutes about it, but I’m none-the-wiser. He wants to make some sort of artistic presentation about it, but admitted it was hard.

It’s at this point I realised that Manning isn’t sufficiently articulate to handle the interview format, but wondered if Stryker’s preparatory conversations had been more elucidating, since Stryker referred back to these several times.

Information, misinformation and disinformation

People often wanted him to talk about secrecy, but his view was that nothing was secret anymore. He again returned to the idea that people were addicted to their phones, which had worsened during the pandemic. No one knew what was real anymore and he himself noted that he felt that disparity once he ventured out onto the streets of Brooklyn.

He had read The Printing Press as an Agent of Change by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein and tried to summarise it and then made a comparison between the printing press and the internet.

So basically he made an observation that people have been making for years, and that Stryker himself must have heard many times before.

What is the standard for being able to judge what is true and accurate?

Manning tries to interact with people better and tries to be positive and stay healthy. After quite a lot of self-help type of advice, he admitted that he ‘didn’t have the answer’. Rinse and repeat several times. I found myself wondering what Stryker was thinking about these repeated evasive answers. Stryker’s body language is closed, which suggests tension, but he also just nods along.

Manning, after a several minute diatribe, ended his response to the question, which he never answered, again returning to the theme of people glued to phones.

Where do we find resistance? You told me the other day you were sceptical about mass movements.

Stryker clearly moves to pin him down further.

Manning works in a tech space, where most people are fairly well off, unless you are trans, a woman, black, etc. Manning was less interested in unionising the tech industry to get better pay or conditions, believing instead such organising should be used to help define job roles and ethics. I guess that means he isn’t a socialist.

He then chose to move onto ‘ethical obligation’, a ropey subject for him to say the very least. We are to understand he is concerned how algorithms affect ordinary people. As I pointed out at the beginning, I believe he may be a beneficiary of such an algorithm. He wants a standard of ethics for data science, and for professionals to be held to account, like they are at the bar or in medicine.

If you feed 4chan into a machine learning algorithm, you’ll get 4chan out.

Manning’s only soundbite

4chan, by the way, is a porn website. So I now have that added to my search history, though to be fair Mr Google did warn me.

What about transpeople in Ukraine?

Stryker was now at his final question before the Q&A. He wanted Manning’s opinion on the Ukraine, specifically on the technology but also trans people. Manning shared with us that he had helped refugees in Poland on the ground but he didn’t want to publicise that. Right.

In Manning’s estimation there were ‘a lot of refugees’ and the situation was ‘dire’. In particular, ‘trans women’ were having difficulties moving through Poland, especially those who hadn’t had their gender marker changed, as they were required to stay in the country and fight. According to Manning, ordinary Ukrainians didn’t care that ‘trans women’ were trying to leave, it was the Polish authorities who made it impossible. Manning claimed to have witnessed these things first hand.

He never talked about the technology involved in the war, nor did Stryker return to it. I’m always hopeful, but I genuinely thought we were going to get some insights into the propaganda war. How dumb am I?

Q&A

Now that more people can and are changing their gender markers on paper, how will this affect data capture?

Manning normally answers this question by asking: ‘Why bother recording gender marker at all?’ In particular, it is useless information to have on your passport. Only your doctor needs to know. Manning doesn’t understand it. A few in the audience clap.

‘US government out of my gender, that’s what I’d say,’ agreed Stryker.

I am trans, and I work in civil rights law representing trans people in prison. From a legal perspective what do you think could be done?

Manning had had the help of the ACLU in accessing hormones whilst in prison (represented by non other than Chase Strangio and it seems all treatments were paid for by the Army). He admitted he didn’t know the answer but recommended that we write to trans people in prison and that we could change someone’s life if we did.

Wowzer! What a puff piece! Photographed by Annie Leibowitz

What positive potential is there in artificial intelligence?

Again, Manning doesn’t know, but hopes that there is. He repeated for the umpteenth time that he works in data science. He gave an example of glacial melting. Someone he knows has taken old satellite photographs and input information to create a dataset. He appears to have only a basic understanding of how AI works, because even me, practically Luddite, can see how such an information set could create corrupted data, e.g. the problems caused by comparing different mediums. Manning described this project as ‘having no chance for a human bias in there’.

Manning became suddenly passionate. He didn’t want people to do research which identified people’s gender.

Don’t do AI that identifies people’s gender. Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it. Just don’t do it. Run. Run as fast as you can from that stuff. Or any kind of digital technology, or whatever, don’t do that stuff. Just don’t do it. Stick with data sets that don’t have a humanities portion to it.

Manning’s philosophy on sex data collection

Better instead to focus on the stars in the sky. Basically Manning is advocating for the Bill and Ted approach to artificial intelligence.

Most of the questions are expressing anxiety about data mining. Will the anti-trans and anti-abortion laws be a way of tracking people?

Yep, says Manning, they are already companies doing this stuff for profit. Stryker pushed him, but it turns out Manning had just heard rumours.

Social media was driving people’s anxieties and algorithms were making things trend. People were stuck in a cycle of demonising people and then getting rewarded for it. It was the gamification of everything, that was what we were now experiencing. One of the few good points Manning made, but only by accident. A blip in his own algorithm perhaps?

Do you think AI will be able to learn about gender complexity?

This put Manning back into his spin of ‘no, don’t do that, don’t do that, don’t do that’. Manning alleged that he doesn’t want any sort of political interference in creating data sets and again repeated his plea to completely ignore gender as a characteristic.

What gives you joy?

Manning is – surprise, surprise – a major gamer. Nuff said.

Do you think the US will one day have a law which will allow the individual to control their own personal data?

‘I think the US is not likely to last that long,’ says Manning. Some in the audience clap and cheer. He thinks in the next few decades the union will break up. Stryker suggested California might go first. And do you know what, I think he might be right.

In answer to the question per se, Manning told us that ‘some pretty interesting intellectual property laws’ were being passed. Don’t overload us with the information Bradley, please.

Do we need to end capitalism to solve some of these problems?

Manning describes himself as sceptical of capitalism heading towards being anti-. He wanted people to have good job protections and healthcare (contradicting what he said earlier about unionising in the tech sector).

The internet allows people in the disability community to interact with others and work, but what about their online safety?

Manning was very much a student, learning about disability activism. He listens to disabled people.

How can we ensure that vulnerable people aren’t targeted by corporations online?

Manning got a bit tetchy and said this felt like this was rehashing what he had already talked about (although he had said precisely nothing about avoiding targeting of corporate capitalism). He repeated again that he didn’t have the answers.

What technology do you use to communicate securely?

He uses the app Signal. No app was truly secure though. Even the safest safe could be broken.

Do you think there could be a connection between the solidarity and mutual aid you experienced in prison and calls for prison abolitionism?

The one thing that I found consistent among my experience in prison, was how pointless it was, it didn’t seem to do anything, except for it to be awful for everyone involved.

Manning on incarceration

It was supposed to be your fucking punishment! Scum bag. But he’s right I suppose, it appears to have been pointless.

What was your favourite video game of 2021?

Couldn’t even answer that question lucidly.

Wrap up time

The last time Manning was in the Bay area he had ‘bottom surgery’. Stryker got an email from a former student that day, who curiously now works for the surgeon who did the aforesaid ‘bottom surgery’. The surgeon had given a shout out. It seems that the surgery was publicly funded.

Manning has been one of Stryker’s ‘sheroes’ since 2010 (i.e. since Manning’s initial arrest) and thanked him for coming.

Manning has a book coming out in October 2022 but a title has not been decided yet. It’s a memoir up to his life in 2017. I pity the fool who agreed to be his ghost writer.

Stryker told us that his current title of Barbara Lee Distinguished Visiting Professor in Women’s Leadership was coming to a close in June 2022, but still wanted to be involved with the Mills community. He had held 14 trans study speaker events over the past two years. Deep change was possible was the lesson he’d learnt over the course of the seminars.


Conclusion

I don’t want to scare anyone, but this is genuinely the photo that Manning shared post-lecture.

Please don’t have nightmares.

Stryker could have pulled anyone off the street and asked them the same questions and I bet most would have had more interesting and informed insights into data sharing than the ones Manning was barely able to articulate.

Particularly revealing was the utter absence of any reflection on the crime he was found guilty of. I believe the repeated evasion of the prison question was simply to avoid sharing any information from his upcoming memoir. He was keen to characterise prison guards as the real criminals, yet with all the media attention on him and bodies like the ACLU fully onboard, it seems incredibly unlikely that guards would have tried to poke that particular hornets’ nest.

Manning has a clear political agenda of wanting data science to ignore gender identity and therefore biological sex. Stryker being on board with that, was of course unable to push him any further on any question about data collection in any meaningful way. Why even have the words ‘identity, technology and politics’ sat side-by-side in the title of the lecture, when you don’t believe that ‘gender identity’ is a valid criteria to look at? Well, I suppose to the casual observer it will suggest that these men are totally onboard with some sort of data collection about the sexes, even if it were based on self-identification, and perhaps that was the point?


If you want to watch the broadcast yourself, you can find the video on this page.


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