Letter from the Editor on Medicine and the Body in Tech

J. Khadijah Abdurahman, Sucheta Ghoshal

Curating an issue on technologies of medicine and the body presented unique challenges due to the field’s extensive reliance on US military and Department of Defense funding. Bioethicists and AI researchers like Phil Agre have pointed out tech’s deep ties with military interests—providing a historical through line whose connections, implied and explicit, emerge throughout the pages that follow. Building on similar work from the 1980s, computational cognitive scientist Chris Dancy reflects on what it means to be a researcher in heavily militarized fields like neurotech and cognitive sciences, a context where a critique of medical technologies, and the industries that support them, is inseparable from that of the conditions of war and genocide. As a companion to our featured tech explainer by Andrea Stocco on biomedical engineering or the brain–computer interfaces, Dancy traces these connections to genocides crisscrossing the globe.

How can we provide a platform to survivors of systematic attempts at annihilation of their life-worlds funded and enabled—directly or indirectly—by US weapons-development and foreign policy? In the same way, as Dinan Alasad writes, that the mass atrocities committed in Sudan by the Rapid Support Forces are archived on Sudani social media, the fields of technology and engineering are themselves living archives of mass atrocities. Despite computer science nomenclature that ascribe sentience and autonomy to automated decision-making and weapons systems, technologies narrated with commercial marketing terms like “artificial intelligence” are embedded in, and direct consequences of, human intention and political insistence. If Palestinians are being subjected to GPS guided bombing by the US-funded Zionist entity and the ways it’s structured by Google search and advertising logics, it is because Zionists and US imperialists more broadly have deemed it ought to be so, and because the political will to obstruct it has fallen catastrophically short—not because the bombs have taken on a life of their own, deciding to AI-power a genocide.

The latter framing is an example of how tech reporting tends to present access within hegemonic institutions—in this case to the Israeli Occupation Forces—as investigation. Also, despite a stated rejection of techno-solutionism being the one political commitment around which a series of fractious computer science fields can rally, triumphalist narrators, like peddlers hawking their goods, still tend to elevate the technology itself as the protagonist. But technology is merely the tools and techniques marshalled by people, their social arrangements, relationships to the environment and ideology. Walls haven’t decided to occupy Palestine; it is the occupiers who decide to erect them. The Ethiopian government’s purchase of Emirati, Turkish, and Iranian drones didn’t in and of itself seal Tigrayans’ fate; it was, rather, the ruling Prosperity Party’s genocidal logics, the utility they saw in whipping up popular support for their collective punishment for the actions of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. It was the ambitions of this axis in East Africa, running from the United Arab Emirates to Turkey, that actualized the capacity of drones to wreak death and havoc on peoples living in the Tigray region.

Another iteration of this idea that tech is the initial signifier in a causative chain goes something like this: Sudan and Palestine are connected because protagonists in the former’s Rapid Support Forces have purchased Israeli weapons and spyware. Or, an even more common refrain, “Everyone is relying on computers made possible by coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Therefore, in order to free the Congo, we must stop buying electronics.” It is, of course, true that the struggles of oppressed people are interconnected, and each of the facts expressed in these statements is accurate. However, such lines of reasoning engage in neocolonialist distortion to pose African nations strictly in terms of production and consumption—primarily as sources of raw goods and consumers of commodities manufactured elsewhere from those goods—rather than as sites of politics. “What’s happening in Sudan isn’t a genocide; it’s only a proxy war.” The politics that we Africans can, apparently, produce is images of placeless Black children with distended bellies, crying beside a mine, looking sorrowful at a makeshift refugee camp. For instance, the Vietnam War was protested, while the simultaneous Biafran War was pitied as a humanitarian disaster. But what can Rwanda’s funding of the M23 militia in eastern Congo, part of a hegemonic narrative about genocide enforced by the state under penalty of death, tell us about the colonial problematic in Gaza or the Nuba Mountains or Plymouth Rock? What is the relationship between computation and the transnational scale of state-sanctioned, extrajudicial vulnerability to premature death?

This issue doesn’t satisfy all of these questions, nor does it offer comprehensive answers; rather, it establishes the grounds on which they can be posited in the first place. And it’s in this context that two pieces examine how transness has been pathologized as a medical disorder requiring a cure, or that one assimilate in effort to become “unclockable.” And ultimately, the case of people who move across gender assignations displaces the ongoingness of colonial classification systems. Those with an expressed disinterest in being “cured” of their presumed gender dysphoria find themselves labeled a problem by the clinics and legislation that underpins them, each of which makes claims on their capacity to transition. In this framework of pathology, Western modernity and its associated duties of medical care are the exclusive arbiters of trans safety: to be trans requires an affirmative declaration, in English. Therefore, there are no trans people in Gaza; they must have fled to Western countries, to Israel, where they are safe—because Hamas is always the threat, not the US ammunition Israel uses to cut through queer flesh. Nor are there, apparently, trans folks living in Sudan, Tigray, or DR Congo, where pinkwashing logics presuppose that trans and queer life is a demographic impossibility.

The joyous images of our former fashion designer in residence, Bones Jones, doesn’t grace the cover of this edition of Logic(s); instead one of our layout designers, Raya Hazell designed a cover to hold space for mourning the dead, asking: How can we make sense of incalculable loss? What is required of us in order to ensure there is no tech for apartheid? The pages that follow invite us to place in orbit critical examinations of medicine—from its deprivation as a weapon of war, to white physicians’ exploitation of enslaved Black people for its development. In conversation with Rezina Habtemariam, Bettina Judd discusses her poetic meditation on what enslaved Black women, on whose flesh modern gynecology was violently forged, would have to say to us on the matter. William C. Anderson thinks about photographic capture and how it was grafted onto symbolic regimes imposed by the English Pilgrims in the making of the so-called New World. And, in conversation with Tamara Kneese, Santiago Sanchez discusses tech-bro quests for immortality.

At the backdrop of all of this, the COVID-19 pandemic endures. Three years after astronomically high COVID-19 transmission and mortality rates were dubbed a “COVID apocalypse” in India, physician Sylvia Karpagam thinks through telemedicine. She discusses how social distancing enforced on the basis of caste was rebranded as a form of clinical benevolence, allowing some physicians to continue to avoid physical contact with those from the countryside (who they already preferred not to touch). Leo Kim writes a parallel story looking at how the East Asian body is feared as viral and infectious in the West. Both writers force us to consider how particular technologies not only exacerbate and deepen forms of social alienation and control, but graft onto already-existing social arrangements. Further, both foreground the ways that speculative futures draw upon racialized and casted anxieties in delimiting who is human or robotic, worthy of being healed or rendered a threat.

This issue was birthed while Columbia University, where Logic(s) is administratively housed within the Incite Institute, sicced the New York Police Department on pro-Palestinian protestors demanding the university divest from weapons development and Israel’s genocidal occupation. President Minouche Shafik’s decision to violently disperse the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on April 18 accelerated the timeline for the magazine to reckon with its own complicity with the university, with the goal of determining how, as a project that neither works with nor primarily serves students and faculty, we can strategically contribute to the demands for divestment. Following this editorial note is a press release detailing the concrete steps that Logic(s) and a series of aligned projects at the Incite Institute are taking to deprive the university of resources, and to work toward exiting the institution over the course of this year. Through a staff-wide town hall and other collective discussions, we’ve thought deeply about how we can meaningfully shift power, rather than just giving symbolic credence to a free Palestine. We invite comment from readers on this plan, but let us be unambiguous when we say that the Western academy, and Columbia University in particular, has blood on its hands: it has directly contributed to the violent dispossession of Palestinian people and the demonization of resistance. We stand with Palestine, a free Sudan, a free Democratic Republic of the Congo, a free Tigray and Oromia. We must free all oppressed and Indigenous peoples globally, and free our movements from the shallow politics of litany. Each of these regions and their associated movements for self-determination requires us to slow down enough to appreciate the specificities—including the way unity often serves as a cover for violence.

J. Khadijah Abdurahman

Editor in Chief

Sucheta Ghoshal

Managing Editor

Khadijah Abdurahman is the editor in chief of Logic(s).

Sucheta Ghoshal is an Assistant Professor at the Human-Centered Design and Engineering department of the University of Washington and is the Managing Editor of Logic(s).

This piece appears in Logic's upcoming issue 21, "Medicine and the Body." Subscribe today to receive the issue as part of a subscription, or preorder at our store in print or digital formats.